~Part 2~

Reno leaned against the storefront with his hands shoved in his jean pockets, one ankle crossed over the other, the picture of casual indifference to all who passed and the world in general. However, hidden behind his dark shades, alert green eyes moved constantly, noting the details of every single person that crossed his path as he exchanged the occasional friendly nod, watching the milling crowd in the square for any person who didn’t appear to belong, keeping an eye on the entrance to the materia shop for the slightest sign of trouble that might require his attention, and awaiting for the reappearance of Elena and the kid, wherever they might have gone.

Nearly two hours had passed since she had taken off with the little girl, and he had visited several establishments in search of her, with little success. A question of a proprietor here and there had indicated that he’d barely missed her in a couple of places, and he began to imagine her lurking out of sight somewhere, watching and taking great pleasure in his fruitless search for her. Of course, he wasn’t looking that hard, because if he were, he’d have already found her. No, he’d mostly been soaking up the minutiae of the small village, collecting information about the inhabitants there, noting the status quo, more or less, just so he’d know immediately if the situation changed, and he’d chosen the prime location from which to carry out his observations, where he could see nearly every shop that fronted the square as well as the materia shop and the pub. If Elena should happen along, he planned to have a few words with her and retrieve his change.

A doorbell jangled a couple of stores down, and Reno casually swiveled his head that way, eyes intent behind the shades. His brows drew together in a frown at sight of the stooped elderly lady who slowly shambled out with the aid of her cane. After watching her for a moment, the redheaded Turk dismissed the old woman as inconsequential and turned his attention back to the crowd in the square, only to find an unshaven middle-aged man staring at the black bag at his feet with entirely too much interest.

With two fingers, Reno drew the shades down his nose and pinned narrowed eyes on the man until the man looked up into the glittering stare, and with a start, hurried on. Satisfied, Reno shoved the shades back into place and lazily uncrossed his ankles to prop one foot on the bag.

A movement on the upper promenade drew his attention, and Reno shifted his eyes behind the shades, redirecting his focus with no overt movement. He found that Rude and Caitlin had finally exited the materia shop and now stood in apparent discussion of some matter that had set Caitlin’s small hands to agitated movements. He found it hard to imagine Rude having that effect on anyone, except maybe through unrelenting stubbornness, but he appeared to have a lot to say to her. Even as he tried to divine the nature of their conversation, Rude turned his head and found him almost immediately, signaling his recognition with an inclination of his head. Pointedly, Reno raised his wrist to look at his watch, and his lips tightened in irritation when he rediscovered its absence. Still, Rude got the message and with a word, pointed Caitlin toward the stairway.

The redheaded Turk casually straightened from the storefront and bent to retrieve his bag. Slinging the strap over his shoulder, he sauntered out into the crowd, slowly but surely wending his way to the center of the square, strolling into the afternoon shadow cast by the enery transit tower to meet Rude and Caitlin just as they rounded the other side.

The three of them met and came to a halt, and Reno noted the hard set of Rude’s jaw as well as the determined tug Caitlin gave against the big Turk’s hold on her elbow. Rude instantly released her, but his lips thinned in barely concealed disgruntlement. “Problem?” Reno asked in an offhand tone as he put his back to the machinery to watch the people around them. His apparent casualness in no way implied disinterest. He knew the answer would probably be important. Rude rarely displayed irritation, and when he did, it usually involved matters that made his job unnecessarily difficult.

Caitlin lifted her chin. “No, there is no problem,” she informed him coolly. “In fact, I think we’re finished here. I want to go back to Midgar now.”

Reno studied her at length as he wondered to what extent her abrupt decision had to do with the current situation and how much it had to with her prolonged separation from Reeve Alexander. He declined to ask her just yet, instead turning to the silent Rude. “So how ‘bout it J.R?” Reno addressed the big Turk by his initials as prearranged. “What’s the problem?”

Rude tensely crossed his arms over his chest as he drew his attention from his scrutiny of the constantly moving crowd around them to address the redheaded Turk. “She revealed her identity to the boy,” he replied in stony monotone.

“Why?” Reno frowned down at the petite woman. “Why would you do that after all your insistence on keeping a low profile?”

Caitlin eyed Reno’s unrevealing dark lenses as she hesitantly shook her head. “He already knew. I just…”

“Confirmed the fact?” Reno drawled derisively as he pointedly shoved his shades into his hair to pin her with eyes full of awed disbelief. “He guessed, and you confirmed the fact.”

Caitlin’s guilty eyes dropped to her toes as she slowly nodded. “Yes, I suppose that’s what…happened…”

Reno threw up a despairing hand. “Hell, we might as well have landed the chopper in the middle of the square and saved ourselves the walk.”

“Look, I’m sorry…”

”…And Rude is damn cranky without his jacket too…”

Caitlin lifted her head warily at the taunting nature of the Turk’s tone, but after a glance at Rude’s stiff posture and tensed jaw she decided that perhaps Reno was not teasing her.

Feeling defensive, her chin came up in defiance. “He promised not to tell anyone, Geo, and I trust him.”

His eyes narrowing slightly at her deliberate use of the name that had resulted from his argument with the missing Elena, Reno jammed his hands in his pocket and nodded wisely. “I’m sure you're right, Caitlin. The kid won’t tell a soul.” Reno leaned close to her, lowering his voice conspiratorially. “He’s just discovered that the long dead daughter of the most powerful man to ever walk this planet, the beautiful heir to the immense Shinra fortune, is actually alive and well and in charge.” Reno lifted a hand to cup his chin in thoughtful contemplation. “I can’t imagine that he’d want to tell anyone. Can you?”

A keen sense of doubt set in at Reno’s words. He was dead right, and she knew it. Anyone would be hard pressed to keep quiet, no matter how well intentioned. Anyone else. Her demeanor turned thoughtful as her mind traveled back to the tiny room and the troubled face of Avian Wulfe, the strange amber eyes brimming with unshed tears as he quietly spoke of his life, his pain openly revealed to her, and later, those same eyes transformed to empathy at her own sad tale, his own tragedies put aside to take on hers, despite the fact that she’d left out most of the pertinent parts. She’d told him just enough to explain her long absence and apparent revival, and even then, she’d left out many sensitive facts; all the events surrounding the despicable Hojo, which she could hardly remember anyway, her prior relationship with Reeve that he didn’t need to know because it wasn’t really a factor anymore, and most importantly, she’d purposely neglected to mention her daughter, the sole reason that she’d endured her years of lonely isolation, years that would have been unbearable but for her memories and Heidi. The mental invocation of her daughter made her heart ache with longing to return to her, to leave the village of Kalm and fly straight home to her and hold her and never let her go, to hide her away forever from all who might hurt her, if they only knew. Heaven forbid anyone would ever know.

Caitlin abruptly looked up to find just what she feared. The entirely too perceptive Reno watching her closely with the wary inquisitiveness of a squirrel and the taunting promise of the hungry wolf. She knew the time was coming when she would find it necessary to deal with the Leader of the Turks. It was unavoidable. But for now, she couldn’t let him see anymore than he already had.

Deliberately, she untwisted her worrying fingers from the strands of her hair and steadied her gaze on his. “He won’t tell. I know it.”

Reno shrugged indifferently. “Doesn’t matter, anyway.”

“It doesn’t?” she asked with surprise, a little annoyed that he would taunt her so and then dismiss the whole matter out of hand.

“Nope, no one would believe him if he did tell.” The bare hint of a wry smile tipped Reno’s mouth. He also suspected the kid’s recognition of himself, and Rude, had more than a little to do with his recognition of Caitlin.

“The point, then, is moot,” the petite woman informed him curtly. “Now, shall we go?”

One red eyebrow went up. “Go? No.”

Caitlin propped her hands on her hips. “And why not?”

“First of all, I haven’t heard what you plan to do about your pet project...” Reno paused a moment to look around. “…And secondly…Elena has yet to surface with the kid.”

Caitlin’s azure eyes sharpened with concern. “Well, where is she?”

“A very good question,” Reno drawled.

Caitlin’s concern turned to alarm. “You don’t know?”

With deliberate nonchalance, he lifted a hand to examine his fingernails. “I imagine she’s having her nails done.”

Caitlin noted the playful sarcasm in his tone as well as his smirk, neither of which did little to alleviate her fears. “Don’t you think we should look for them?”

Reno pinned keen eyes on her face and straightened from his relaxed slouch against the rail. “Elena can handle herself. She’s a Turk. Right now, I’m more interested in the information you managed to garner from young Mr. Wulfe, as well as your plans regarding the same.”

Caitlin shrugged tightly as she took a couple of steps away to scan the heads of the people in the crowd, anxiously seeking a glimpse of Elena’s blonde head. “Nothing really…” she responded cautiously.

“Nothing…really…” Reno repeated dryly. “That’s hardly a commendable product of interrogation.”

She shot him an impatient look. “I’m not an interrogator, Reno. I’m a…” She stopped short, a tinge of horror in her eyes at what she’d almost said. She shuttered her eyes and looked away.

“…A…what…?” Reno inquired with keen interest.

“Artist,” she replied lamely.

“…A…artist…” Reno repeated a frown. “Forgive me, Caitlin, but your grammar leaves a bit to be desired. All that schooling for naught.”

Crossing her arms, Caitlin hunched her shoulders against the taunt in his tone. She knew quite well that he wasn’t interested in her grammar, but in her lie. She also knew that she should confront him and say something that would divert him from the knowledge of her lie, but she knew that would only require another lie, and she was a terrible liar. She could envision only digging herself in deeper. If only she could trust him. If only she could really trust any of them. To her great relief, Rude moved from his spot where he’d consigned himself to silent watchfulness. He stepped protectively to her side, swinging his hidden gaze to Reno’s face where his covered eyes settled in stony warning. Reno didn’t have to see them to know it was time to move on.

“Avian Wulfe, Caitlin,” Reno prompted coldly, his own eyes chilly on Rude’s face. “What did you discover?”

Raising her eyes, Caitlin finally turned to face him. “He doesn’t know anything, Reno, and what’s more, he’s now convinced himself it was a random attack that had nothing to do with him.”

“Tell me what he told you,” Reno demanded stubbornly as he finally switched his gaze from Rude’s face to hers.

Caitlin shifted uneasily. “Well…his father was in Soldier. First Class, no less.”


“Er…Terrin…I believe he said.”

“Go on.”

“His father had been enlisted in the Shinra military for fifteen years when he vanished on a mission five years ago. Avian was thirteen.” Caitlin didn’t add the information that Avian’s father had been called to duty on his thirteenth birthday, the anniversary of which was only two days away.

“His mother died recently, around a year ago, I think he said. She’d been ill for a long time, and he’d been taking care of her.” Caitlin didn’t relay the pain in the young man’s eyes, or the strained and broken words, when he’d told her of his mother’s long struggle with her disease and eventual death.

“After he lost his mother, he left Midgar and took work in Kalm. To be near his Grandmother and his aunt. His Grandfather was a farmer, but he died a few years back. Avian was born in Midgar, grew up in Midgar, and seemed to have a pretty good life as the son of a Soldier First Class…” Except that his father never seemed to be around… “…Until his father was gone, along with his income, and his mother was forced to move to the slums where she barely supported them making bread at a small bakery, until she grew too ill to work.” She fell silent as her thoughts turned inward.

“Name of the bakery where his mother worked?”

“I…don’t know.”

“Where in the slums did they live?”

“He didn’t say…”

“His father was stationed at Shinra’s Midgar headquarters?”

“That is my assumption.”

“Did his grandparents grow up around here?”

“I…really…don’t know…”

“What do you know?”

“That’s about all of it, except…ah…he doesn’t seem to have…many people close around him. His boss…and the boss's wife…and there’s a girl in Midgar…but he hasn’t seen her in a long time…his aunt…his senile Grandmother…his dog…Soldier.”

“Soldier?” Reno asked sharply.

“It’s the dog’s name. Soldier,” Caitlin clarified.

“Kid seemed pretty popular down in the square,” Reno commented as he reviewed her assessment. “Yet you see him as insular.”

“I didn’t say he wasn’t likable, just that he seems to spend a lot of time alone. He likes to read. And tinker…” And dream… “It’s just a feeling I get about him.”

“And Kendo?”

“He doesn’t know him. He has never heard his name before. And he doesn’t recall ever seeing the man before. Just what he’s already told us.”

“Perhaps I should talk to him.”

“No!” Caitlin protested in alarm. “He doesn’t want to talk to you.”

“What he wants is immaterial.”

Caitlin's eyes turned stormy. “But what I want is not. Is it?”

Reno’s own eyes turn mutinous, but he curtly inclined his head. “No.”

Caitlin’s chin lifted and her azure eyes iced over as her inbred Shinra arrogance jumped to the forefront. “You see, Reno, therein lies the problem. No only does that boy know exactly who you are and what you are, but he has no love for Shinra. The company stole his father from him and screwed his mother out of her company benefits. Then the poisonous slums that Shinra created killed his mother. He doesn’t want to talk to you nor does he want you to talk to his family. And what’s worse, he doesn’t want protection from anyone connected to Shinra. So I’ve agreed that we’ll go and leave him alone, which I believe to be an unfortunate decision, but one that can’t be helped. We cannot take him prisoner.”

“We certainly can,” Reno reminded her.

“We won’t take him prisoner then,” she said stubbornly. “It’s his life and his choice.”

“You’re making a mistake, Caitlin. The attack was in no way random.”

“I know…” Caitlin conceded sadly.

“There’s Elena,” Rude interjected blandly.

Reno sharply looked at the big Turk’s face to find him staring off toward the main entrance of the village. He shot a glance in that direction to confirm that Elena and the kid were indeed headed toward them and would be in his clutches shortly before bringing his attention back to Caitlin to pursue his argument against her decision to leave Wulfe to his own devices. Then, almost of its own accord, his head whipped back to look again as the synapses of his brain finally impressed the image he’d just seen on his mind.

“Excuse me,” he said with curt politeness. Jerking his shades down over his eyes, he strode away. Curious at the Turk’s sudden departure, Caitlin promptly looked around to locate Elena and Rachel, and the sight that met her eyes brought a wide grin to her face. She decided the upcoming encounter might be too good to miss. “Come on, Rude. I think maybe we should mediate.”

The frigid water rushed from the open valve to surge around muddy wingtip shoes as Reeve vigorously scrubbed at the dried muck on his fingers, a shudder snaking through his body at the cold. The copper haired girl hesitantly joined him, finally slipping her own hands into the violent stream from the opposite side.

Reeve drew his hands back to inspect them, and satisfied at the level of cleanliness, he bent to splash the water into his face, almost gasping at the sting of the icy drops against his cheeks. Eventually, he turned his mouth into the stream to thirstily drink. Finally, he stepped back to let the girl have full access and examined his messy clothes with distaste. There wasn’t much he could do with the suit, short of stripping and washing the garments out in the water.

The girl straightened to watch him brush at the knees of his trousers in amusement as she wiped her own wet hands against her skirt. “I think that suit’s only good for the garbage bin now, Mr. Alexander.”

He ruefully nodded. “I fear you are right.” Defeated in his attempts to render his clothing more presentable, he straightened with a shrug and walked over to shut off the valve, a large wheel that stubbornly resisted his effort at first, but finally gave with a protracted squeal of protest. Wiping his hands against his jacket, he looked up at her troubled face. “It’s just a suit,” he reassured her.

She smiled deprecatingly. “Spoken like a man with many suits in his closet.”

Reeve frowned slightly at her comment, but his brown eyes twinkled in amusement. “Hmm…you have me pegged. I do have a lot of suits in my wardrobe. Unfortunately, my closet is buried beneath tons of rubble I suspect, along with my shoes and ties, and…everything else I own.”

The girl frowned too, but she didn’t share his humor at the situation. “I’m sorry, Mr. Alexander. I wasn’t really thinking…I hope…your family made it okay.”

Reeve shuttered his eyes as he turned away to return to their previous route down the center of the round pipe chase. “Well…I don’t have any family…I did have a cat…but he passed on…a few months back…but thanks for the sentiment.”

“It must be a lonely life,” she wondered aloud as she fell into step beside him.

“Eh…maybe so. I don’t think about it, I guess.” His brows drew together in troubled thought as Caitlin’s face came to his mind, one particular image of her when she had her accusatory blue eyes upturned to look at him.

“One of those workaholic type of guys, I’ll bet.”

“Hmm…probably…” He couldn’t pinpoint the exact event of the memory. There had been too many times she’d pinned him with that look, and for various reasons.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Alexander. I’ve been presumptuous.”

Reeve silently waved a hand in easy dismissal. “Don’t worry…about it…” He was loath to let the vision in his mind go.

“So, what now, Mr. Alexander?” she queried uneasily, mostly to break the silence that stretched between them.

Reeve roused himself from his reverie to concentrate on producing a serious answer to her question. It was long past time to consider his next course of action. He couldn’t wander about in the waterways forever. He had to confront the problem before all the stability he’d worked toward dissolved into complete chaos. He just didn’t know how. He didn’t know whom he could trust, but he would have to settle on someone. Already he’d expended precious hours – he had no clue how many - and he couldn’t afford to waste anymore.

“I have to go back,” he said with a firmness he didn’t feel. “I have to regain control of the situation.”

“Oh?” The girl turned to look at him with amazement. “And how do you plan to do that? The military probably has orders to shoot you on sight.”

Reeve smiled wryly. “You’ve a knack for reassurance. I feel so much better now.”

“Do you have a gun on you?” she asked practically.

“I have a flashlight, an inoperable computer, and a pen.”

“Well…I suppose you could blind them with the light, throw the computer at them, and stab them with the pen.” The slight smile that had formed at her silliness turned into a frown. “Just before they gun you down. You better just stay down here.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

“Then what will you do?”

“I’ll have to make contact with someone that can help us.”

“But who? Who can you trust to help?”

Reeve scrubbed a weary hand across his neatly trimmed beard. “I…just don’t know. General Sand, maybe…”

“But he’s a General. Military right?”

“Right. You have a point.”

“Someone must be behind this. Do you know who?”

Reeve shook his head slowly. “I can only speculate. There are a number of possibilities. Without more information, I simply have no way to know.”

“So we are back to the question of who to trust.”

”Yes…I just don’t know…” Reeve suddenly snapped his fingers, and the girl jumped in alarm. “I do know who.”


“Ian Cornell. He’s not military. He’s engineering. I find it highly unlikely that he would support this action.”

“So you can trust him? For sure?”

“Well…I’m not a hundred percent sure, but I’ve no other options. I also know just where to find him. We can get there through the sewers.”

“Seems pretty risky, Mr. Alexander,” she mused skeptically.

Reeve abruptly halted and turned to face her, his brows drawn in frowning concern. “You don’t have to go with me, you know. They won’t know who you are. I doubt they got a good look at you. There’s a ladder leading up to Sector Two not far from here. There is no need for you to involve yourself further. In fact, I have to consider the danger to you. I insist that you go.”

She raised her chin in defiance of his words. “You can insist all you want, sir, but I won’t go. You can’t make me. I’m not leaving you to wander around down here by yourself. As far as I can see, Mr. Alexander, I’m the only friend you’ve got right now.”

Reluctantly, Reeve nodded in concession. “And a very good friend, indeed. I’d just like to insert a verbal clause into this arrangement.”

“What’s that, sir?” she smiled at his nonsensical request.

He leveled grave eyes on her amused face. “When the shit hits the fan, I want you to run as hard and fast as you can,” he said gruffly.

Her smile instantly vanished. “No worries on that score, Mr. Alexander,” she assured him grimly. “No worries at all. I’ll disappear so fast, you’ll wonder if I was ever there.”

He floated weightless in space; cocooned in the blackness of an airless vacuum, distant points of starlight sparkling coldly into his staring eyes, his body chilled to insensate numbness. Dimly, he recognized the hand that drifted in front of his eyes, the leather and metal studded glove clearly his own. Yet a half-hearted effort to move his hand closer didn’t manage to twitch so much as a finger.

The thought occurred to him then that he’d been falling, not so long ago, tumbling end over end into darkness, and though an aimless review of the rapidly fading contents of his mind revealed no memory of an end to falling, he decided it was about time he accepted the idea that he must be…had to be…


Interestingly enough, he seemed remarkably untroubled at his realization. And it wasn’t that he would willingly relinquish life so easily, but that he’d always known that only death could provide the means to fulfill his greatest wish. The wish that burned in his heart with fires barely banked. The wish that lured his thoughts in every idle moment. The wish to see her again. More…to touch her again.


She turned her head to look at him, green eyes sparkling with mischief, a wide smile on her sweet lips. Was she a creation of waning thought? Or had she come to meet him? The real Cloud. Had she come for him now that he was dead? Truly, he didn’t know, and he didn’t care. If he could have moved his lips, he would have smiled. If he could have stirred he would have reached to touch her face.

Her smile ebbed away, and she frowned with concern as she reached out her hand to touch his. “Cloud? What are you doing here?” she queried in dismay. Her worried voice filled his mind with warmth.


She leaned close to glare him at with stern emerald eyes. “Oh no you don’t, Cloud Strife. You are not dead. I will not allow it.”

Inside his thoughts, he laughed. What do you have to say about it, Miss Gainsborough?

“I have plenty to say about it, Mr. Strife,” she curtly informed him. She wrapped her fingers around his limp hand. “I need you, Cloud. I need you, and I need your sword. You can’t die now.” She drew closer to slip an arm around his waist, her beautiful hair floating in swirling tendrils all around him as she pressed her body against him, laid her face against his icy cheek.

…What now…Aeris…

She closed her eyes and softly smiled. “We dance…Cloud…we dance…”


”…We…will…Cloud…I promise…we…will…” With a sigh, she turned her lips against his slack mouth in a gentle kiss. “…Later…”

Instantly, precious air stuttered past his chattering teeth and rushed into his starving lungs, setting off a violent spate of choking and coughing that racked his whole body with pain. Arching his back against the hard ground beneath him, he struggled mightily to gulp in another breath even as his glowing eyes flew open to find a pair of concerned green eyes hovering close above his face, warmly illuminated by a muted halo of diffuse light that transformed the flowing chestnut hair to spun gold.

His stumbling thoughts stilled to silence. “Aeris?” he choked out in wonder.

The green eyes blinked in bemusement. “I’m afraid not, soldier.” With a shake of her head, she reached with firm hands to grab his shoulders. “It’s Megan. But that will be Dr. Glass to you.”

With the help of another pair of unseen hands, she rolled him to his side, and all the words he needed to say were lost in the wash of muddy water that choked raggedly through his throat and over bluish lips. Weakly, he curled against the ground and shivered violently, his body chilled through and through, only vaguely aware that the self-proclaimed doctor sat wordlessly with a shadowy form standing tall beside her, the only sound in his ears the staccato chattering of his own teeth.

Dr. Glass watched for long moments, biding her time as the soldier’s breath eventually steadied and his teeth ceased to clack. Then she reached out a hand to help when the solider moved to sit up, shifting the sheathed sword on his back to ease his struggle. Finally, the soldier pushed himself up, only to drop his head into a gloved hand with a soft groan. She noted that the sound seemed to arise more from frustration than pain.

“What’s your name, soldier?” She cocked her head to study his closed eyes.

“…Cloud…” he muttered into his palm.

“Well…Cloud…Larry here tells me you fell from the sky…”

“…Seems right…”

“You’ve come a long way to take a swim.”

“…I…came…to help…”

“I must say, you’re off to a great start.”

At the sarcasm in her voice, Cloud raised his head and opened his eyes to pin her with the glowing Mako orbs. She caught her breath at the full brunt of his intense stare.

“I have a radio,” Cloud offered irritably.

Dr. Glass smiled coolly. “A radio? You mean…this radio?” She picked up the radio from the ground beside her and held it up, turning the communication device so that a stream of water poured from the speaker.

“Yeah, that’s the one,” Cloud replied dryly.

“I thought so.” Megan Glass offered Cloud the waterlogged radio, which he readily took from her, and she stood, reaching down to offer him a hand. He waved her away, and shoved himself to his feet on his own, momentarily closing his eyes as his head swam.

“You gonna be okay, soldier?” she asked with renewed concern.

Cloud opened his eyes again to look at her. “You tell me. You’re the doctor.”

Dr. Glass looked up to nod at Larry. The broad shouldered man inclined his head in response and walked away. When he was gone, she planted steady eyes on Cloud’s face and tilted her head thoughtfully. “You seem to be nearly recovered. Not unexpected for one of your sort.”

“My…sort?” Cloud’s eyes narrowed on her complacent face.

“Physically enhanced member of the Shinra Elite Soldier Corps, First Class,” she clarified with a hint of disapproval.

Cloud didn’t bother to reply. There was no point in reinforcing her misconception, and he didn’t feel compelled to enlighten her as to her misassumption. Besides, he’d just realized where he was, and at that point, anything the doctor had to say ceased to hold any interest.

“…The flowers…” Cloud murmured as he slowly rotated in place, the better to see every colorful blossom highlighted in the lantern light.

Megan’s expression softened. “Flowers? Yes. They are beautiful. Especially in this place. The Flower Girl’s gone, but her flowers live on.”

“…Her house…” Cloud suddenly turned to stare at the lighted windows and darkened silhouette of the gingerbread house.

“It serves the injured and dying now,” the doctor murmured. Then she bent to lift the lantern from the ground and turned away. “Well, I’ve work to do. You probably better speak to Frederick if you’ve come to help. He’s sort of taken over around here.”

Cloud forced his gaze from the house to the doctor’s departing back as she moved away through the flower garden. “Wait, Dr. Glass. Where is this Frederick?” The doctor halted in mid-step to look back. “At the church. He’s working to clear the gate.”

“The church?” Cloud took a step forward. “Does the church still stand?”

Fascinated by the strange increase of the intensity of light in the soldier’s eyes, Megan slowly nodded. “Yes, the church still stands.”

Cloud stared at her in seeming incomprehension. He had not realized the extent that his belief in the loss of the church where he’d literally fallen into Aeris’s life had weighted his heart until the doctor’s simple words lifted the burden clean away, and at that moment of elation, he thought he might fly. A rare smile transformed his face.

Against her will, the doctor found herself answering the handsome soldier’s wondrous smile with one of her own. “I think you already know the way. So go on. Get.” She waved a hand to shoo him away.

Almost impossibly, Cloud’s smile broadened. “Thanks, Doc.” Then he was off and running, all else forgotten but for the torchlit path to the church.

“Just what are we looking for here?” Derry peered skeptically into the mangle of debris beyond the opening in the wall just inside the Sector Five Gate.

The chocobo’s reins wrapped loosely around her hand, Yuffie stepped closer to Derry’s side to inspect the wreckage with appraisal in her ebony eyes. “What crazy thing was it that Cid told you to do again?” she asked.

With a hand against the metal bulkhead of the city’s exterior wall, Derry took a step closer, a move that brought him out of the late afternoon sunlight and almost nose to nose with the oil soaked surface of a splintered length of board jutting from a wild tangle of twisted metal that filled most of the space in front of him. Once his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he could make out more of the same in the deeper darkness beyond. “The Captain said to figure out why the Cat Man on the radio mentioned Sector Five and report back.”

Dropping the reins to trail across the ground, Yuffie moved to Derry’s side and frowned into the unpromising mess of debris. “A way in maybe? What did Shinra say?”

His interest piqued by her reference, Derry turned sky blue eyes in her direction. “Shinra? Who’s that?”

The ninja girl whipped her head around to glare at him. “The Cat Man, moron.”

“I thought we got past that ‘moron’ business,” Derry chided her with a half-smile.

“We’ll never be past it, Flyboy. So don’t be getting your hopes up. ‘Kay?”

“Didn’t plan to, Princess,” he replied agreeably.

Yuffie’s eyes darkened on Derry’s amiable face. “Why not?” she demanded.

“Just because.” He lifted one shoulder in an indifferent shrug.

“Just…because?” The last syllable of the word ended a couple of octaves higher than normal, and the obsidian eyes caught fire.

In smiling unconcern, Derry slipped his hands into his back pockets and returned his gaze to the interior darkness. “Don’t know what the Cat Man said. The radio died and cut him off.”

Yuffie glared her displeasure with lowered brow, her hands notably fisted against her thighs, as she struggled with a decision as to whether to give him the full brunt of her sharp tongue or the edge of her keen blade. She eventually deemed the latter choice to be counterproductive, and the former to be a waste of her energy, especially as the dolt seemed impervious to her insults and incapable of argument, sucking all the fun out of the whole exercise.

A sudden gust of wind lifted the ends of the pilot’s silky blonde hair and set the tendrils dancing in the air, holding Yuffie’s rapt eyes completely, until a sudden movement to her right brought her head snapping around. The river chocobo that had been engaged in pecking at the infertile ground since she’d been left to her own devices, now stood a few paces behind the tall young man, her round eyes caught by the movement of his blowing hair, exhibiting a rapt interest that mirrored that of Yuffie’s just the moment before. The chocobo took a tentative step in the pilot’s direction, and a smile slid across Yuffie’s face as she pointedly redirected her own attention to the debris inside the gate, judiciously deciding to follow Derry’s lead and return to the subject at hand.

“This doesn’t look very promising as an evacuation route,” Yuffie mused aloud. Derry didn’t bother to respond. Or move for that matter. With head bent and eyes narrowed in concentration, he seemed turned to stone, but for the dance of his hair in the swirling current caught in the blocked opening to Sector Five. The bird stretched her neck, and Yuffie held her breath.

“Do you hear something?” Derry suddenly asked, his smooth brow crinkling into lines of perplexity.

“Uh uh,” Yuffie replied automatically, her anticipatory smile turned on the chocobo as she snapped her beak closed on a whipping strand of silvery hair.

Derry instantly reacted to the hard tug as well as the sharp click by freezing in place. Cautiously, he turned his head, but only so far as the chocobo still held part of his hair captured in her beak while she happily munched.

Derry turned a mildly troubled gaze to Yuffie, and his eyes narrowed on her smug face. “Would you please help me out here, Princess? Your chocobo thinks I’m on the menu.”

Yuffie heaved an exaggerated sigh, hugely disappointed at the boring response. She’d hoped for a stumbling withdrawal from the pilot, or a protracted scream at the startling proximity of the hungry bird, or at the very least, a jerk of his head resulting in a cry of pain when the captured strand of hair brought him up short. Reaching into her pouch, she retrieved a granola bar and waved it close to one of the bird’s eyes. As expected, the chocobo eagerly opened her beak to take the favored snack as the strand of silver hair slipped from her maw.

Yuffie resettled her pouch against her hip and turned to find Derry watching her with knowing eyes as he slid a hand against the back of his head to smooth his hair into place. Defensively, she lifted her shoulders in a shrug and pasted an expression of innocent bemusement on her face. “Hey, I guess Loki thought your hair was straw.”

“Yeah, I get that a lot.” Derry smirked at the flash of irritation in her eyes, and shot out a hand to grab her wrist, drawing her close before she could react past her initial surprise. Deliberately, he dropped a hand on each shoulder and walked her around him to position her in the center of the opening. “Now listen,” he commanded softly. Still standing behind her with his hands resting lightly on her shoulders, he also bent his head close to listen. For once, she did as he asked without question or argument, partially stunned to speechlessness by his sudden move and partially by a keen awareness of the warmth of his hands through the thin material of her shirt and the stir of his breath at the back of her head. She blinked as a silver strand of hair drifted into her peripheral vision.

“Do you hear it?” he urged in a whisper.

Making an effort to focus her attention, she bent her own head to listen, but after several moments in complete stillness, only the barely audible whisper of the wind met her ears. She decided, finally, that Derry was toying with her, probably to get even with her for the chocobo thing, but before she could dredge up the motivation to whip around with a flying fist and punch him right in the nose, a distant tapping rose from somewhere within, faraway and almost buried in the wind.

“I do hear it!” she exclaimed, turning her head to look up over her shoulder at his face with eyes shining in her excitement. “Do you think it’s a signal?”

Derry abruptly released her and moved to her side, again turning to stone as he continued to listen, his eyes losing focus as he mulled over the matter. With a vague sense of disappointment at his withdrawal, she stood uneasily and studied his still face, until finally he stirred and shook his head. “No, it’s not a signal.” He shifted troubled eyes to her face. “Do you think someone’s trying to get out?”

Yuffie’s own face filled with concern, and she walked another step into the opening, her eyes sharpening in concentration as she looked for a potential path through the wreckage. Eventually, she tilted her head back to discover a narrow space between a section of riveted metal that appeared to have been a section of the railway floor, crumpled as though it were little more than sheet of aluminum foil, and the hulking mass of the exterior wall of the city. Only a dense and fathomless blackness met her eyes as she tried to see into the space beyond. “There’s only one way to find out, Flyboy. And that’s to go in.” She spoke with a determination that hid the uneasiness churning in her stomach as she deliberately reached for her pouch. Derry looked up to peer overhead as she uncoiled a length of rope, shaking the hooked end out to let it fall to the ground at her feet.

For the first time since she’d known him, the pilot reacted with alarm when he realized that she planned to squeeze through the narrow aperture with no knowledge of what lay beyond, but the fact hardly registered on the preoccupied girl who might have appreciated his reaction. He rounded on the ninja girl and fisted a hand around her slim wrist. “You can’t go up there, Yuffie! You don’t know what’s up there!”

“No, but I’m going to find out,” she informed him coolly. “Just as soon as you remove your hand.”

Derry shook his head in a stubborn refusal to obey. “I’m not letting you go. If you get stuck or hurt, you’ll be alone.”

“You will let me go.” Her voice had developed a layer of brittle iciness. “Now.”

“I won’t,” he informed her in a voice turned to stone.

“Oh…you will…” A cold smile curved the corners of her mouth. In a series of moves so swift and seamless that his mind hopelessly stumbled to follow, she snapped her wrist from his tight grip, swept his legs from under him to dump him hard onto the ground, and leaped forward to plant a foot in the middle of his chest, shifting her weight against his sternum to hold him there as she grinned evilly into his startled eyes. She reached over her shoulder to lift the Conformer from its sling and bent to touch one blade against the end of his nose. His blue eyes crossed as he apprehensively examined the glinting tip.

“Do you understand the pointlessness of your resistance now, Flyboy?”

He looked up into her face as his eyes filled with defiance.

“You won’t kill me,” he informed her with confidence.

She tipped her head in thought. “Actually, I was thinking more along the line of creative incapacitation. A shuriken to each kneecap would do admirably. It wouldn’t kill you, but it would hurt a lot.”

Her words did nothing to quell his defiance. “Look Mr. Heidegger, I could waste time and rope tying you up if I have to, but I’d rather not. I fear Loki might eat you. However, the choice is yours. Shall I stake you to the ground?”

Careful not to move his face, Derry shifted his eyes to see the great blue river chocobo at the edge of his vision, pecking happily at the ground a few feet away. At that moment Loki raised her head to look at him with unblinking eyes. “Fine Yuffie, if you’re so determined to go, then go,” he replied curtly.

The instant his words left his mouth, she removed her foot and whirled away. In the time it took him to push himself to a sitting position, she’d already positioned herself in a slight crouch and had set the rope into spinning motion. He scrambled to his feet as she let go of the end to send it flying up into the darkness above. With a sharp tug, she set the hook, and then she made a mighty leap to grab the rope a few feet above her head. Her feet dangling off the ground as she hung by one hand, she turned her attention in his direction. “Thanks for your cooperation, Mr. Heidegger. I’ll see you later.”

Derry took a determined step toward her, and she lifted a threatening finger to point at him. He raised his chin at her implicit threat. “I’ll be right here waiting, Miss Kisaragi.” He jabbed a finger at the blackened ground beneath his sneakers. “So it better be sooner.”

She gave him a little smirk and a careless wave before she turned to the business of climbing the rope, swiftly ascending hand over hand with only one wrap of the rope around a slender calf to steady herself. Within seconds, she was gone, and the rope whipped out of sight shortly after.

Derry hesitantly walked forward to peer up into the unrevealing darkness. He knew without a doubt that if the girl wound up in trouble that no one would be able to help her until it was much too late. He could only hope that she had the good sense to come back before she got to that point.

The chocobo that Yuffie had dubbed Loki warked softly alongside him.

“You said it, birdy,” he absently informed the chocobo. “Is that girl brave? Or just stupid?”

“Wark. Wark,” the chocobo replied.

“Yeah, I’m opting for stupidly brave too,” he ruefully conceded. “Or bravely stupid.” He had to admit one thing to himself. If he’d never known before – and he had wondered more than once – how that girl came to be a member of Avalanche, he knew exactly why now, and he would never wonder again.

Determined to wait in that spot until she returned, he crossed his arms as he shifted his weight to one foot and stared patiently up into the aperture, completely oblivious as Loki gracefully stretched her neck toward him, unblinking eyes on the silvery tendrils of silk stirring in a breeze turned cold.

Elena warily watched the redheaded Turk as he walked around her and the little girl with purposeful slowness, deliberately taking in every detail of their appearance at his leisure, with eyes unrevealed behind the dark shades. She could only hope that Reno’s green eyes expressed curiosity or maybe even appreciation rather than murderous intent. Nervously, she shifted in place, her fingers unconsciously tightening around the curled hand of the little girl as she drew her shopping bag protectively against one leg.

After a cursory once over of her entire appearance, Reno started his appraisal over again, more languidly this time, unconsciously lifting a finger to stroke the scar on his right cheek as he circled the woman and the girl. He took in Elena’s shiny blonde hair, now retrieved from limp stringiness and returned to its perfect coif. He noted the defensive lift of her chin as his eyes carefully traveled over her face, the fine features that turned men’s heads under any circumstances now delicately highlighted with the tints and shades of the cosmetics she’d expertly applied. A slender silver chain rested against the subtle lines of her breastbone, a sapphire phoenix at the end dangling just above a precariously low scooped neck of a white pullover shirt that fit snugly and ended a few revealing inches above the waistband of a pair of black stretch pants. The pants, into which she’d obviously been poured, traveled the curves of her slender legs approvingly, almost as approvingly as at least one pair of green eyes. He studied the three-inch heels on the cuffed ankle boots for a long moment before raising his eyes to the long sleeved, cropped black jacket of denim trimmed in fine embroidery at collar and cuff, on his next pass noting, with some amazement, the vibrant phoenix emblazoned in colorful thread across her back with wings outspread. The hem of the jacket fell a few inches past her waistband, just long enough to cover the shape of the handgun that he knew must be jammed into the back of her pants. As he finally came to a halt in front of the two females, his eyes were captured by the glossy red tint of her perfectly manicured nails. A smirk touched his expressionless lips as he recalled the sarcastic words he’d spoken mere moments before. She’d definitely had her nails done.

Shifting his weight to one foot, he crossed his arms over his chest and peered down at her, the smirk not leaving his lips. She stared back with a mixture of defiance and uneasiness. “Operating expenses, Elena?” he silkily inquired.

Her chin lifted another notch. “That’s right, Reno. Operating expenses.” Her tone dared him to argue. He smiled enigmatically, setting the gears spinning in her head as she sought to divine the redheaded Turk’s thoughts just then.

His eyes reexamined the low neckline of the shirt. “I don’t suppose you’re wearing your bulletproof vest under that…shirt,” he idly remarked.

“You know I don’t have it anymore,” she reminded him with cool eyes.

Reno suddenly held out a palm. “I want my change,” he drawled.

“Change?” she asked innocently. “What change?”

Reno’s smile turned chilly. He stared down at her for a long moment, and then raised a hand to point a finger down into her face. “We’ll be discussing this problem of your insubordination at a more opportune time, Esmeralda,” he promised ominously.

She pasted an equally chilly smile on her own face. “Fine by me, Georgie,” she sneered. “Just say when. Until then, I shan’t hold my breath.”

Reno’s mouth thinned and one eyebrow lifted. Elena wondered then what madness had possessed her. She couldn’t seem to keep herself from pushing him, and for the life of her, she couldn’t explain to herself why. She imagined, at that moment when the cold smile slipped from his face, that she might have pushed him too far, but when she dwelt on the matter, she found herself amazingly unconcerned. She purposefully looked away from him to scan the crowd with a pretense at casualness, only to find Caitlin and Rude standing to the side watching. Her eyes met Caitlin’s amused gaze, and she nodded with a chilly smile. Rude simply stared through his shades, his face as unrevealingly still as always. Who knew what he thought?

Seeking to belay Elena’s attempt at evasion, Reno had just opened his mouth to demand a detailed accounting of her expenditures, when he detected a tug on his jeans. Irritated at the interruption, he glared down. Rachel serenely stared up at him and offered him the colorful oversized lollipop that she’d been licking contentedly during Reno’s inspection

Reno shook his head. “Thanks, but no thanks.” His tone was curt and distracted.

Rachel silently pointed at her head. Reno narrowed his eye in examination of the white straw hat and the wide red ribbons that trailed off the brim. “You got a new hat,” he informed her brusquely. “Yep,” she agreed. Then she pointed at the shiny black shoes on her feet. “…And new shoes,” he added with a slight frown.

The little girl hardly noticed his expression of displeasure, her head swiveling at the sound of a little girl’s voice somewhere close by. Reno’s brows knitted as he scrutinized her red cotton dress. “You got a new dress too…”

The girl’s face brightened, and she darted off. “Miss Myra! Miss Myra!” she squealed as she ran away, almost tripping a startled man passing by. Elena and Reno both grabbed for the child at the same time, but she was too quick. Reno sprang into motion, dashing after her in a fast walk, long legs quickly closing the space between them, closely dogging her heels though he couldn’t quite lay a hand on the elusive child. Elena ran just behind, her heels tapping smartly against the tiles of the square.

Reno reached her first, catching up to her mostly because she’d stopped. He bent and snatched her up into his arms, but she wriggled against his hold. “I want to see Miss Myra,” she told him anxiously, leaning against his arms with one chubby finger pointing. Reno raised his head to see just what person had the little girl so overwrought, and his hidden gaze froze on the woman’s face, the instant recognition in her gray eyes reflected in the green ones behind the shades.

“What are you doing with that child?” Elmyra demanded coldly, her eyes turning as frosty as the glacial ice on the Northern continent. Reno found himself at a loss for words, partly because he was wondering the same thing himself, especially when Rachel smucked the sticky lollipop flat against his ear in the middle of her exertions to get free. Relenting, he set her on the ground, and she immediately ran to Elmyra’s waiting arms. It was then that Reno noticed the dark-haired child watching him with worried round eyes from behind Elmyra’s skirt.

Elmyra deftly took the lollipop and lifted the girl into her arms for a hug. Then she drew back to look into her face as she returned the lollipop to her. “What happened to your beautiful hair, Rachel?” she asked in dismay as she touched fingers to Rachel’s bleached locks. Then she raised angry eyes to Reno to demand the same thing of him, but she found that he’d moved away and a petite blonde woman who looked vaguely familiar now stood before her.

“Do you know her?” Caitlin asked in a quiet voice.

“Know her? Of course, I know her. She used to come to my house for cookies with her mother all the time.” Elmyra’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Where is her mother?” she demanded. “And who are you?”

“Is there a place we can talk privately?” Caitlin pressed her. “About Rachel. And her mother.”

With pursed lips, Elmyra examined the young woman’s earnest face. Then she turned her attention to the redheaded Turk that had harassed her own daughter on more than one occasion. At the moment, he stood slouched in place, eyes diverted into the crowd as he rubbed his ear with a fingertip, seemingly uninterested in the unfolding scene. Another woman stood nearby, but she seemed detached, and Elmyra wasn’t sure she was with him. She pinned Caitlin with accusing eyes. “Why are you with that Turk? What is he doing with Rachel?” At her angry words, Marlene faded further back, fisting both hands in Elmyra’s skirt.

Caitlin smiled warmly. "I understand your concern. Obviously, you care about Rachel’s welfare, and so do I. Don’t worry about him. Rachel is not with him. She’s with me. He’s just helping me.”

“Hmph. That’s difficult to believe.”

Caitlin wisely held her counsel. “Will you talk to me?” Elmyra stared down into the smaller woman’s face in indecision. Caitlin kept her face carefully bland, her eyes friendly even as she hid her worries about what would happen if the woman refused.

Hesitantly, Elmyra nodded, but she again looked up at the Turk who had now turned in the direction of the blonde woman with the shopping bag in her hand. He still watched the crowd, and the blonde woman watched the two of them. She pointed a trembling finger at Reno. “You can come, but not him. I don’t want him anywhere around Marlene.”

Caitlin inclined her head graciously as relief flooded through her. “No problem. That guy has his own problems to tend to, I’d think. Will you show me the way?”

Reno had been pretending a marked disinterest in the conversation, but he’d not missed a single word, listening intently as he’d irritably scrubbed a finger at his sticky ear. Now he watched as Elmyra turned to guide Caitlin away, and he wasn’t about to let her leave without protection. He scanned the square looking for the missing Rude, but he knew that the big Turk had melted away into the milling crowd at first sight of Elmyra. Besides, the woman knew Rude even better than she knew Reno.

The redheaded Turk turned back to find Elena looking at him with questioning concern in her eyes. He remembered, then, that Elmyra didn’t know Elena. Almost imperceptibly, he nodded and fisted a hand against his thigh with one finger pointing down. Elena, who’d been watching him closely, returned the slight nod and whirled away to chase after Caitlin. “Wait! Can I go too?” she called after the two women as she hurried to catch up. Caitlin and Elmyra stopped and looked back as Elena halted in front of them.

Elmyra looked her over from head to toe. “Is she with you?” she questioned Caitlin. The petite woman inclined her head. “Yes.”

“Who is she?”

“I’m her sister,” Elena hurriedly interjected.

Elmyra looked from one woman to the other, the one much taller than the other. She really couldn’t see much resemblance between the two. She leveled a suspicious stare on Caitlin’s expressionless face. “Is that true?” she asked her skeptically. “Is she your sister?” Even as she asked, she peered back to see what the Turk was doing, only to find that he’d gone. When she returned her attention to the taller woman, she found her idly inspecting her lacquered nails. “Come on then,” she curtly directed, even though Caitlin had not answered her question. “Both of you…this way…” Still carrying Rachel, with a wary Marlene still clinging to her skirt with one hand, Elmyra led the way as the two women followed.

From his spot where he lounged against the railing that circled the transit tower, Reno followed their movements through the dark shades. Rude slipped from around the other side to stand silently beside him. “I’m starting to feel unwanted,” he commented to Rude wryly as he watched Elmyra open a door across the square to usher Caitlin and Elena inside.

“What now?” Rude asked him coolly. Reno shrugged indifferently. He could almost feel the waves of disapproval emanating from the big Turk. Rude was not happy to have Caitlin out of his sight. For that matter, neither was he, but he hadn’t seen a single indication of any danger since they’d arrived in the busy village. “Don’t worry about her,” he said lowly in an attempt to settle Rude down. “Elena will do her job.” Rude’s only response was to fold his arms. “Until then…” Reno paused as he mentally reviewed the various courses of action open to the two of them. “…I think we should work on passive intelligence acquisition. We need to know more about that Wulfe kid.”

“The pub?” Rude asked quietly.

“Definitely the pub.” Reno smiled.

“Do you really think this is the smartest thing to do, Mr. Alexander?” the girl asked for at least the tenth time, her voice no less anxious for having had her question answered just as often. And again Reeve patiently responded in approximately the same words. “There is nothing else I can do but hide in the sewers, and that is not an option I will entertain.”

This time she had an idea. “What if I went for help? You stay here, and I’ll go find anybody you say and bring them back. What do you think of that?” The girl knew she was going against her earlier proclamation against leaving him alone, but the further they walked through the sewage channels, the worse she felt. Her premonition of impending doom had swelled inside to the point that she almost couldn’t bear it, and she’d learned long ago to trust her intuition.

They rounded a long curve in the sewer tunnel, and a lighted crossway appeared ahead. “We’re almost there now,” Reeve replied reasonably. “There’s the Sector Three main channel. It’s not too far after that. We might as well just get on with it.”

The girl abruptly grabbed his coat sleeve and pulled him to a halt. He gazed at her in bemusement. “Please reconsider, Mr. Alexander,” she pleaded earnestly. “I have a really, really bad feeling about this idea.”

Reeve peered down into her anxious face thoughtfully as he did reconsider, just as she’d asked. In the end, he found the conclusion the same. No one would come to his rescue. He was on his own. “I’m afraid I’ve no one to name. But you should leave the sewers anyway.”

She shook her head and set the copper strands swaying. “Not without you.”

Reeve smiled kindly into the girl’s intensely serious eyes. “You’ve done enough for me. More than enough…really. You don’t have to go on, and you probably shouldn’t go on.”

With a defiant toss of her head, the girl released his sleeve and walked on. “We might as well get going, Mr. Alexander,” she pronounced her intention to stay the course. “Time is wasting, and I’ve errands to run.”

A wry smile curved Reeve’s lips. The girl was certainly determined to see him out. Wearily, he forced his feet into motion, his eyes falling to the damp concrete floor ahead as he wished for nothing more at that moment than sleep. He thought that if he ever had the opportunity to sleep uninterrupted that he’d probably sleep for a week. His thoughts inevitably turned to Caitlin again, and though he didn’t want to think of it, the possibility of her complicity against him. He could well imagine such a scenario. After all, she didn’t owe him a thing. Not consideration. Not loyalty. Not…love. Definitely not that. He’d never understood what in the world she ever saw in him anyway. What it was about him that drew her all those years ago. Back when he was a lowly engineer, not so many years out of college, just another nameless face in the company, and she was…well…Caitlin Shinra. Born to wealth. Beautiful beyond words. And very determined. At least, where he’d been concerned. A quiet smile came to his lips as his absent thoughts drifted into the past and to the memory of how determined she’d been. That first day…in the beginning…when she’d focused her sights on him…

You’re a difficult man to find, Reeve Alexander.” At the teasing words, he raised his eyes from the blueprints spread across the library table to find her standing just on the other side. He recognized her immediately. The girl from the hallway. And then their eyes met, and his breath caught in his throat as that same electric connection jolted between them, a phenomenon he’d not experienced with anyone before, and one that he couldn’t explain. One that made him uncomfortable in her presence. He shifted his eyes to her pert nose. “What can I do for you?” He couldn’t imagine what she wanted, other than to demand retribution for his clumsiness in the corridor, and now that he truly realized the diminutive size of her, guilt assailed him. The petite woman probably thought she’d been hit by a barreling freight train. “Er…I’m…sorry about yesterday…in the hall. I hope you’ve suffered no injuries…”

“You needn’t apologize, Reeve. May I call you Reeve?” He hesitantly nodded. “Well, Reeve, I consider the fault to be mine. I was a bit…overwrought…and not watching where I was going. I’d like to make it up to you.”

He shook his head in negation. “There’s no need for you to do so. I accept responsibility,” he politely replied.

A dimple appeared in one cheek when she smiled. “Fine then. I’ve no desire to argue with you. You can make it up to me.”

Startled, he brought his eyes back to hers. A mistake. Aware of a sudden increase in the rate of his pulse, he looked away this time, to a point in space somewhere above her head. “What do you have in mind?” he queried cautiously.

“Dinner at the Garden. Tonight. Sevenish.”

Reeve slowly straightened from the table. “I…can’t…tonight. I have to work.”

“Tomorrow night then.”

He shook his head. “I…can’t.”

Her encouraging smile turned to bemusement. “When is a good time for you?”

He knew he should tell her that no time was a good time. That he had this huge project to complete that would require all of his time for the next couple of weeks. But he found that he had no wish to deny her. And he decided he could probably find some time on Friday night. He had to eat anyway, didn’t he? He opened his mouth to tell her. “…Tonight…seven…is fine…but…I’ll have to meet you…if that’s…all right with you…”

Her amusement sparkled in her eyes, but she kept any comments about his change of mind to herself. “I’ll see you then. I’ll just leave you to your work now.” With a little wave she turned to go. “Wait.” His words stopped her in mid-turn. “What’s your name?”

She didn’t immediately answer, possibly due to the surprise apparent in her face, and his brows drew together in puzzlement. Why would she be surprised that he would ask? “Is there a…problem?”

Her lips twisted in what she’d probably intended to be a smile but wound up in a grimace instead. “I just…thought…you already knew…”

He raised dark brows in question. “Should I?”

She waved a dismissive hand. “I just thought you’d seen me around…you know…” A nervous laugh escaped her lips, and she pressed a hand against her mouth. “I’m sorry, I have to go now. I’ll see you at 7 then.” And so she’d left without telling him her name. He’d thought it an oversight, and he didn’t worry about it as he planned to find out that night. Until he shortly discovered why she’d neglected to tell him. The minute he returned to the office, and an exuberant Jack almost maimed him when he’d appeared, dragging him through the maze of cubicles to the conference room, where he’d shut the door and rounded on him, his eyes gleaming with his keen curiosity. “Why was Caitlin Shinra looking for you?” Jack demanded. “Did she find you? What did she want?”

He stared at Jack speechlessly, his mouth drifting ajar. “That was…Caitlin Shinra?” he finally exclaimed in astonishment. He raised a hand to his chest. “About this high? Blonde hair…blue eyes…white dress?”

Jack threw a hand up in despair. “You don’t get out much do you, Reeve?”

That night he’d spent more time worrying about the date than he had getting ready for the date, pacing the living room like a caged cuahl with a glass of brandy in his hands, concocting the words he would say when he called her to tell her he couldn’t make it, and then realizing he didn’t know where to call her, and then deciding to just not go, and then conceding the rudeness of such an action, the unmitigated gall of standing up the daughter of President Shinra, and then wondering what effect such an action would have on his career, and then conceding that as immaterial, simple justification so he wouldn’t have to admit that he wanted to have dinner with her, and then deciding that just because he wanted to have dinner with her didn’t mean he should, and then in the end, he picked up the phone to call the cab, the decision finally made to go to the Garden to tell her he couldn’t stay, that he couldn’t go out with the daughter of President Shinra.

But of course, once he saw her waiting for him in the foyer when she could have been seated already, in her sparkling blue dress that transformed her azure eyes to blue starlight, and once she’d noticed him there and granted him a joyous smile that made him look over his shoulder for the real person for whom she smiled, and once she’d taken his hand to lead him inside, all the carefully planned words he’d meant to say left his mind, all contemplations about turning tail and running vanished from his besotted mind.

And later, when she’d driven him home, and he’d meant to say goodbye, but found her lips instead, the first kiss of many satisfying kisses in front of his apartment that night, any hope of escape that he might have harbored in the back of his mind vanished into the gutter along with the fat raindrops that splattered against the roof of her car. And to that day, every time he’d found himself caught in traffic with too much time to think, with the rain pouring down, and raindrops pattering hard against the metal roof of his sedan, he always thought of her, and he would remember the taste of her kisses…

“Did you change your mind, Mr. Alexander?”

The girl’s voice, echoing loudly in the tunnel, brought him back to the present. A bit dazed, he shoved away from the dank wall where he’d apparently come wearily to rest during his trip into the past, his heart aching as the last of the memory faded away, silently cursing himself for thinking of it at all. He’d sworn not to think of those days, fully aware of the pointlessness of it all. He didn’t want to go back there again. Too many years had gone by. Too much life lived since then. Too much pain packed away. He couldn’t go back. And he doubted that she’d want to do so, either.

“Are you okay, Mr. Alexander?” the girl called anxiously. Reeve looked up to find her standing just short of the cross tunnel. He nodded and started forward, shooting a glance at his wristwatch only to be reminded that it no longer worked. The two of them had been wandering the tunnel for endless hours, but the hands of his watch no longer moved. He heard a sound and looked up only to find that the girl had apparently decided not to wait and had already disappeared around the next corner. And the sound…a scuff of her shoe maybe…certainly too brief to identify. He suddenly found himself nervous that she’d gone ahead, and he set off in a fast walk to catch up with her.

Without a thought, he walked out into the brightly lit cross tunnel and spotted the girl right away, standing down the tunnel to his left. Reeve instantly halted, his eyes wide in horror at sight of her held quiescent in the arms of a military officer who had a hand clamped tightly over her mouth and the barrel of his sidearm pressed into her copper hair. Though her eyes were wide with her fear, she darted a look to his right, a move he realized as a warning. Too late, he started to turn, but instantly froze every muscle at the cold touch of the gun barrel against his temple and the sharp click near his ear as the hammer cocked back.

The cell door creaked open, but the dejected blonde solider didn’t bother to look, preferring to remained curled on the cold, hard metal shelf that passed for a bunk with his back to the intruder. The sound probably just marked the arrival of another tray of the disgusting slop that passed for food.

“Private Coakley?” a deep voice gruffly inquired.

Interest stirring inside him, the soldier rolled to a sitting position. “Yes, sir.” He kept his voice neutral even though he wanted to bite the sergeant’s head off. “It’s time for you to go. Report to your battalion.”

“You’re letting me go?” Coakley asked in unguarded astonishment.

The sergeant shrugged. “No reason not to, is there? Have you done anything wrong?”

“No, sir. I just do what I’m told, sir.”

The sergeant placed a bundle on the shelf by the door that included his boots, his cap, and his rifle, among other things. “Boot up and get gone,” the sergeant nodded at the bundle. Coakley immediately stood and saluted the sergeant. “Yes, sir.” The sergeant returned the salute and left, leaving the cell door standing ajar behind him.

Still befuddled at his sudden release, Andy Coakley swiftly dragged his boots on over socks soiled from the cell’s dirt floor and tied them. Then, he buckled on his kit belt, and slung his ammo belt over his shoulder. Snatching the automatic rifle into his hands, he checked the load, and threw the strap over his shoulder as he hesitantly walked through the door to freedom, holding his breath as he imagined the sergeant throwing him back in with a laugh at the joke. But none of that happened. No one even looked his way.

Standing motionless in place, he peered off in the direction he would expect his battalion to be stationed. Then he turned the other way, a grim smile taking possession of his face as he broke into a run. For the first time in his military life, he purposely disobeyed an order, and though he’d always been a dutiful soldier, always unquestioningly obedient and respectful, he did not care. There was only one man he would took orders from now, and that man was in trouble. He would not stand by and do nothing.

The heavy door opened on a squeal of hinges long in need of oil, and two men walked out, one younger than the other, a passing similarity between them more than hinting at a familial relationship. The younger man, the first out the door, immediately noticed the immobile obstacle in his path. No great feat, as the man in the garb of a Soldier First Class stood squarely in the middle of a lane already claustrophobically narrowed by the tangled wall of debris that stopped only feet from the building. His luminous Mako eyes, as well as the sword on his back clearly marked him as the elite soldier he appeared to be, and he didn’t seem inclined to move out of the way.

The young man shifted his feet nervously as he worked up the nerve to ask the soldier to move from the path in his most polite tone. The older man silently halted at his elbow and studied the soldier as well, but he saw a very different picture than did his son. Where his son focused solely on the cold alien light in the soldier’s eyes, the huge sword and muscular arms capable of wielding it, and the protective armor at waist, shoulder and wrists, the older man noted the bedraggled, sopping wet clothing, the pale face slashed in half by a swathe of ruby light cast from a section of the backlit stained glass window, the glazed aspect of the luminous eyes, the almost imperceptible trembling of the man’s lower lip, and the fingers that worried a thin strip of damp ribbon.

The older man brushed past, to the surprise of the younger, and approached the shivering soldier, halting a couple of feet away. “Can we help you, son?” he asked in as unthreatening a tone as he could manage. He had to consider the possibility that the man wasn’t in his right mind. As if to confirm that idea, the soldier slowly turned his head to look through him with haunted eyes, only to shift his gaze back to the flickering candlelight behind the stained window just as slowly.

“Is something the matter with him, Dad?” the younger man asked in a whisper from where he stood just behind his father. The older man shook his head uncertainly. “Go fetch a blanket, and tell your mother to come here,” the man replied lowly.

The younger man didn’t waste a second obeying his father’s command, disappearing into the church, only to return within moments with his mother. The sharp-eyed, gray-headed woman also didn’t waste any time. As soon as she laid eyes on the soldier, she swiftly shook out the blanket and started across the hard packed ground, coming to a stop when her husband put out a hand to stay her. “Be careful, Liesel,” he murmured in warning. She dismissively shrugged off his hand. “I’ve seen him before, Albert,” she informed him. “He was with the Gainsborough girl.”

Without another word, Liesel moved to the soldier’s side. “Would you like a blanket?” she cautiously asked. The soldier didn’t respond in word or look, so she went ahead and lifted the blanket as her husband came to stand protectively beside her. Careful to avoid the sword that hung from his back, she stood on tiptoe to wrap the blanket around the man’s shoulders. At the touch of her hand against his left arm, Cloud suddenly moved, shooting a hand up to grab hers, and startling both the woman and her husband. With her hand in his, Cloud turned to look, the forgotten blanket falling from his shoulders to pool on the ground.

As the vivid images of a smiling Aeris, evoked by his memories of their first encounter in the church, faded reluctantly from his mind, an awareness of his immediate surroundings began to return, too slowly, and a line formed between his eyebrows as he frowned into the woman’s nervous face and struggled to recover his senses. Liesel tugged gently in the hope that he would release her hand, but he only tightened his grip, unconsciously using her hand as his anchor in his bewilderment. Her husband moved to intervene, but she shook her head, deciding to speak to the solider instead.

“Did you know the Flower Girl?” she asked in a conversational voice.

Cloud stared at her hard, as though she’d spoken in a language incomprehensible to him. “…Wha…”

“The Flower Girl…” the woman prompted. “…Did you know her?” The woman thought that possibility might explain his behavior since the death of the Gainsborough girl had been the topic of gossip for a while. No one had known for sure if the story was true, but she suspected that it was, and that this man knew it. “Was Aeris your girl?”

The keen light of intelligence abruptly burst into the soldier’s dull eyes, and he spontaneously released the woman’s hand. “I’m sorry...” he mumbled as he averted his eyes and shoved the sodden ribbon into an equally sodden pocket. “I didn’t mean…”

“I’m not worried about it,” she soothed as she bent to retrieve the blanket from the ground. “I’m more worried about your health.”

Cloud wrapped his arms around his chilled body, turning away to look at the church again as a shudder shook him. “I’m fine,” he said more firmly this time. “Just cold.”

“Here take this.” She offered him the blanket, and he readily took it from her, already turning his eyes back to the building as he gratefully dragged the woolen material close around his body. “Thanks,” he said absently.

“It’s true then, isn’t it?” The young man stepped forward to ask, ignoring the warning shake of his mother’s head. “The Flower Girl…she’s dead…” His mother narrowed her eyes in a fierce glare at his rudeness, but Cloud didn’t seem to mind the question, apparently willing to respond.

“Yes, it’s…true,” Cloud replied dully. “…The church…I thought it was gone…” he added compulsively. “When I saw the debris from outside…I just knew…it had to be gone…”

”You came from outside?!” Albert exclaimed, his face flushing with his excitement. “There’s a way to get out then?!”

Cloud grimaced ruefully, and finally brought his gaze away from the church to swing the full brunt of his Mako eyes onto the man’s face. “I’m afraid not. I came from the other side.”

“Well, how?” the man demanded. “If you got here, we can get there.”

Cloud tipped his chin to look upwards. “I came up through a shaft that runs through the barrier wall. I tried to climb down, but…I hit the end of my rope.” A wry smile formed as he brought his gaze back to the man’s face. “I fell into the river, I guess.”

The man’s eyes crinkled as he suddenly chuckled. “I guess you did, son. You’re pretty wet.”

“So there’s not a way out?” Albert Jr. impatiently interjected.

“That doc over by the river told me you were working on a way.” Cloud’s eyebrows rose in question.

Albert acknowledged the truth of the doctor’s words with a nod, but the last glint of his amusement at Cloud’s expense vanished from his eyes. “Yes, we’ve been working, but…we’ve…not been having…much luck…and…” The man’s voice cracked and trailed away, and he abruptly put his back to the soldier’s wondering gaze, his head bending as he lifted a hand to his eyes.

Liesel stepped close to her husband, laying a comforting hand on his shoulder as she looked to Cloud with a grimace. “Albert’s right. We’ve all been working on moving debris, but it’s been slow going. Excruciatingly slow. We don’t have the heavy equipment we need so we’re working with hand tools. And the junk has to be carried somewhere else. We pooled everything we had, but we’re running low on food and fuel for the lanterns. And there are so many injured people….so many that need more help than Dr. Glass can give them…” Her face suddenly twisted in pain, and she closed her eyes as she fought to steady herself, her fingers squeezing her husband’s shoulder as much for support as an attempt to ease his distress. “…Our daughter…Penny…is…” She worked to expel the words from reluctant lips. “…I’m afraid we’re running…out of…time…” Her husband’s shoulder heaved beneath her hand as he drew in a shuddering gasp of air, and she lowered tear-filled eyes to the ground.

Cloud shifted uncomfortably as he unconsciously tightened his hold on the blanket in a fisted hand. Their pain struck too close to his heart.“ I don’t have much to offer, but I’m willing to work.”

Liesel tried to smile at the earnest young man, but couldn’t quite make her lips obey. “Thank you for that. We’ll take your help gladly.” Her eyes fell again. “…But I’m afraid…at this point…” She took a breath and forced out the thought that had been tormenting her mind for the better part of the day. “…We need a…miracle…”

A shrill ululating cry, challenging and wild, rang from the dark depths overhead, and the four people instantly reacted to the alien sound. Liesel jerked her eyes heavenward, standing her place as a hand flew to her throat. Albert Jr. stumbled back against the wooden door of the church as the feral sound filled his mind with debilitating fear, and the older Albert froze with eyes focused into the darkness with the weary acceptance of a man that awaited the fall of an axe. The soldier flung the blanket aside, answering the challenge with a menacing step forward as he wrapped his hand around the hilt of his sword.

Before he could draw the weapon from his back, the cry abruptly cut off, leaving only the distant clang of tools and faraway voices to disturb the silence left in the wake. Cloud paused in tense anticipation for the threat to confront him. Until a high-pitched voice echoed from somewhere above. “Cloud…is that…you?” the voice squeaked in surprise.

The Avalanche warrior’s brows drew together in frowning bewilderment even as his fingers relaxed the tight grip on the sword hilt in disbelieving recognition of the voice. Then a dark figure plummeted from the black vault overhead to land lightly on sneakered feet. The ebony eyes filled with joy. “It is you!” she shrieked with earsplitting intensity. The coiled rope and her Conformer fell to the ground as she leapt forward to wrap her arms around the bemused soldier in an exuberant hug.

Cloud lifted his hands out to the side and held them there as though he’d planned to return her hug but then thought better of it. He shifted his stunned Mako eyes from the dark head pressed against his chest to the three intensely curious pairs of eyes focused on the two of them. Instantly, he dropped his hands to her arms with the intention of detaching her from his body, but before he could follow through on the idea, she suddenly sprang away.

“Eeeeeyewwww! You’re all wet!” she wrinkled her small nose in disgust. “Yuckers!”

Cloud folded his arms and turned an appraising gaze on her face. “Did you come from outside, Yuffie?” he flatly asked. He already knew the answer. She couldn’t have come from anywhere else.

“I sure am glad to see you, Cloud!”

She looked like she might hug him again, and the warrior took a defensive step back. “I’d have to say I’m a bit surprised to see you, Yuffie,” he replied with a slight smile. “Did you find a way in?”

She threw her arms out in exasperation. “I never thought I would get through that mess, Cloud, and it was so dark after I dropped my light! And then there was this…stuff…” she lifted a palm to her face and wrinkled her nose again. “…I put my hand in.” She threw her hand in the air. “I don’t even want to know!”


“And before that! Let me tell ya about this guy that tried to kill me in his plane!”

“Yuffie,” Cloud said more firmly. To no avail.

”And guess what, Cloud! That guy’s another Heidegger!”

Cloud drew in a bracing breath and held his tongue as he wondered if he should just wait until she finished.

“I was so airsick, Cloud! The plane was all over the place! I know you know how it is, Cloud! When you were telling me all about when you were airsick and how you…”

Helplessly, Cloud finally threw a hand in the air in despair. “Yuffie!” he shouted in desperation, mostly to hear himself think over the numbing stream of words in his mind. “Will you just…shut up?!”

Yuffie’s mouth fell open and her eye’s flew wide at the unaccustomed volume of Cloud’s voice as well as his rude command. Then she slammed her mouth shut and narrowed cool eyes on his face. “Well….sor-reeeeee,” she huffed. “Maybe I’m not so glad to see you after all, Strife.”

The warrior held up a placating hand. “I’m sorry, Yuffie, but I have to know. How did you get here?”

Her anger hardly assuaged, she threw a hand over her shoulder. “Sector Five Gate,” she snapped coldly.

Cloud suddenly reached up to grasp Yuffie’s shoulders in his hands, leaning closer to look into her face. “You found a way through the wreckage?” he asked with intense eyes on her face.

“Uh uh.” A smug smile curved her lips as she swept her hand in an arc. “Over the top.”

“Can we get people out that way?” His voice had taken on an urgency that Yuffie finally recognized. She dragged his eyes from his face to scrutinize the other three people standing nearby. She couldn’t miss the eagerness in their face, the hope in their eyes. Her chin lifted. “No, Cloud. I can’t. The way is too treacherous. Some places are too tight. I could barely fit through.” She stopped talking, thoughtful eyes on his intent face. “…But…”

“But?” Cloud persisted.

“I think Cid can make a way,” she mused out loud.

Cloud’s fingers tightened at her words. “Can you go back, Yuffie? Can you tell him to get on it? ASAP?”

“What? Now?” She frowned her displeasure. “I just got here.”

Cloud abruptly dragged her closer and bent his head to speak near her ear. “I think you’d better.” Yuffie studied his face with dark eyes. “I lost my light, Cloud,” she said hesitantly. “I don’t think I can…”

The warrior abruptly released her, reaching a hand into his soggy pocket to draw out the penlight Cornell had given him. With a silently voiced prayer that the device would prove to be waterproof, Cloud hit the switch, and the penlight rewarded his fervent plea with a weak glow. Yuffie scrutinized the penlight with skeptical eyes. Cloud gave her a sheepish smile. “I know it doesn’t seem like much, but up there…” he tilted his head back to peer into the darkness. “…It will seem like a lot.”

Yuffie’s eyes sharpened coolly on his face, and then she shot out a hand to snatch the penlight from his fingers. Without another word, she jammed the small light between her teeth and spun away, springing into seamless motion as the scooped up the rope from the ground and ran forward, setting the rope spinning as she moved.

The three Sector Five residents watched in wonder as Yuffie sent the rope hook shooting up into the darkness. She set the hook on the first try and after a quick test of her weight, started to climb without a backward glance.

Cloud pensively studied her agile figure as she swiftly ascended the rope, levering herself up with sneakered soles planted against the smoother surfaces evident in the tangle of debris. He suddenly ran forward just before the darkness would consume her. “Good luck, Yuffie,” he called, even though he wanted nothing more than to order her back. He knew from the gravity in her eyes at the words she didn’t speak aloud that she faced a formidable and frightening task. And though he knew it would hardly be the first time she’d done so, he feared for her.

She looked down with a cool smile on her face. “Luck has nothing to do with it, Cloud Strife.” Then, with a hard shove of her feet, she was gone.

Liesel turned awestruck eyes to Cloud’s face. “Who is that amazing child?”

Cloud swept a shaky hand through his wet hair and swiveled his head to pin uneasy Mako eyes on her face. He started to tell her that the child was a seasoned warrior. A well-trained member of a blue-blooded royal ninja clan, an obnoxious but loyal companion, a cunning thief, and the next ruler of the once great warrior nation of Wutai. A wry smile touched his face as he responded in a voice full of quiet respect. He answered simply. “She’s your miracle.”

Her chin in her hands, Elena stared with unseeing eyes into the dark square below. The voices droned on behind her, but she didn’t hear the words anymore. She didn’t need to hear any more. Caitlin had established long ago that the woman, Elmyra, didn’t know much about Rachel or her mother, other than some rather unremarkable facts. The two of them had resided in Sector Five. The girl’s mother had been a seamstress. The woman’s husband had abandoned her years ago, and Rachel had come along after. There were rumors about the identity of the man that might have fathered her, but nothing firm. The reported consensus seemed to be that a Shinra soldier had done the deed while passing through the woman’s life for a brief time. The local train attendant seemed to be the second choice. And the third, the proprietor of a local shop that went by the name of Keivar. Talk that the man’s wife vocally denied any time Rachel or her mother came up in a conversation. Elena sighed her boredom as she scanned the murky darkness between the islands of light cast by the street lamps. Gossip. Sometimes useful. Mostly not. There might be some truth to be found there. Or it might all be patently false. In this case, the information Elmyra imparted to Caitlin would be difficult to verify. Nearly impossible, in fact.

She could barely see Rude now, only finding him because she’d kept an eye on him, off and on, as the late afternoon shadows had stretched long into the evening, the daylight inevitably surrendering to dusk, and then to night. He still lounged against the stone wall just outside the pub, attempting to look the portrait of a bored businessman lazily whiling away the hours in total inactivity, slumped with his back to the wall and a bottle of beer in his hand. Whether it was the size of him or the blank stare of the opaque shades, people tended to hurry on when he looked at them, and the few braver sorts that had spoken to him were no doubt soon dissuaded by his monosyllabic responses.

Every once a while, he would tip the bottle to his lips to drink, but Elena knew the act to be contrived. Although Rude typically enjoyed his beer, he would not allow himself to become inebriated on the job. Having kept track of him for hours, she was well aware that he’d been holding the same bottle the entire time he been there in that spot, a position that he’d chosen primarily so he could watch the front door of the house they’d entered and the window at which she now stood, while at the same time keeping an ear tuned to the interior of the pub where Reno had taken up permanent residence.

Her smooth brow knitted at the inevitable introduction of the redheaded Turk to her thoughts. But then, she had to admit to herself that he’d not been very far from her mind all day. Certainly, not since she’d been rethinking her actions earlier in the day. She couldn’t imagine what had driven her to that level of risk in tempting Reno to retaliate in a manner she most likely would not like. She seemed incapable of obedient subordination to the Leader of the Turks of late. Probably because her life and her identity as a Turk seemed so tenuous now. So uncertain. And Reno didn’t seem one bit perturbed. Her career, her paychecks, and her very identity might well be flushed down the toilet, along with the home and belongings she’d already lost, and he tells her just worry about breathing. Breathing…indeed. She shook her head in wonder. Breathing…

Her irritation at Reno surging anew, she abruptly shoved herself away from the window to glance around the room, noting the two little girls curled together, sound asleep on a patchwork quilt that Elmyra had thrown down on the floor near the table. Caitlin sat in a chair facing Elymra, rapt azure eyes on the woman’s face as she talked. For hours, Elmyra had been talking as Caitlin mostly listened, only interjecting a word or question here and there to keep the woman going. Elmyra had gone through her whole life story by now, with an emphasis on the events surrounding the Wutai War and the loss of her husband, told in excruciating detail, and she was currently in the middle of regaling Caitlin about her daughter, Aeris, and Shinra’s interest in her, a topic that seemed to captivate the Shinra heir. But then, Caitlin seemed to have the capacity to appear captivated by every word out of the older woman’s mouth, a talent she herself admittedly lacked. Quite frankly, Elena didn’t want to hear about any of it, and at that moment she decided that she wouldn’t hear about it anymore. She was going to go for a walk. In defiance of Reno’s orders again. But she didn’t care. Nothing untoward had occurred the entire time they’d been in the village, and the status hadn’t changed since they’d entered the tower room, evidenced by the fact that the languorous Rude in the square below had been her prime source of entertainment for the last three or four hours, once the shops had closed for the evening and most of the people had retired from the streets to go to their homes or tents or whatever. She needed to get away from the room for a few minutes, before she went nuts. In fact, she’d probably already gone crazy, since she was actively planning to annoy Reno further, but she thought she could make a case to him for her very brief absence from Caitlin’s side. Besides, she needed to talk to Reno, to make an attempt to smooth his ruffled feathers over the money she’d spent. She should probably give him back the roll of gil she had tucked in her bra. Get the little ‘talk’ he’d threatened out of the way before he’d stewed about it too long. It was long past time to touch base with him anyway. What could he do? Kill her? Better to die by his hand than expire from boredom.

Her decision made, she strolled casually around the room for a few moments, pausing a couple of times, first to examine an amateurish painting of the Kalm meadows and next to touch an ornate but tarnished candle sconce. Eventually, she came to rest at Caitlin’s elbow. Elmyra stopped talking at Elena’s arrival at the table, as though she’d completely forgotten about her presence in the room until then. Elena smiled sweetly at the older woman, receiving only an unblinking stare in return. When Caitlin, curious at the visual exchange, looked up curiously at Elena, the blonde Turk bent to whisper in her ear. Caitlin nodded her understanding, and Elena strode away, the high heels of her boots clicking against the wooden floor.

“Where is she going?” Elmyra asked with a hint of disdain.

Caitlin returned her gaze to Elymra’s face. She knew the woman didn’t care for Elena. Either she didn’t like her style of dress or she rightfully harbored suspicions about her. Probably the latter as Elmyra seemed an astute woman. She wondered what the woman would do if she realized Caitlin’s own identity. Probably boot her down the spiral staircase outside the door. After what she’d just heard of the Shinra Corporation’s impact on this woman’s life, Caitlin considered that would be the least she might do. She offered the woman a soothing smile as she listened to the receding tap of Elena’s heels descending the metal stairs. “She’s going for a walk.”

“Good,” Elmyra breathed with relief. “Where were we now?”

Caitlin leaned forward to prop her elbow on the table, her eyes again rapt with interest. “You were just going to tell me about Aeris and the Turks.”

Rude noticed her the second she slipped out the door. Lips thinning in irritation, he drew his shades down his nose to watch her circumnavigate the square, walking mostly in shadow, until she emerged into the golden circle of light cast by the pub’s entrance lamp. She paused a few feet away, just at the edge of the light, and swept a casual gaze around the darkened village.

Rude tipped the bottle to his lips before he spoke. “What’s going on?” he queried in a low growl, shoving his glasses back into place over his brown eyes and tipping his chin to stare up at the softly illuminated tower window. His voice, though emotionless, held the unspoken message that she’d better possess a valid reason for leaving Caitlin to her own devices.

Elena’s eyes paused with seeming interest on a couple huddled close together on a bench across the way, speaking in voices too soft to hear. “Nothing,” Elena replied coolly. “Less than nothing, in fact. The ladies are talking. The kids are sleeping.”

“What are you doing?” This time his tone held a trace of censure, barely detectable, but certainly there.

“I just thought I’d take a couple of minutes to check in with Reno while it’s quiet.” She moved her gaze to his stiff face. “It’ll be alright. I told her to put a candle in the window at the first hint of trouble. Just watch for a few minutes. I won’t be long.”

Rude didn’t look at her, his eyes steady on the window, but he did jerk his head toward the open doorway into the pub, the mute direction to Reno’s location his tacit acceptance of her plan.

Skirting the deceptively relaxed Turk, Elena strode through the pub door into a punishing wave of noise produced primarily from people trying to talk over each other as well as the tinny music from a jukebox. A hazy blue cloud of cigarette smoke filled the entire room, along with the scent of spilled liquor and fried onions. Lifting her fingers to her mouth, she daintily coughed at the assault to her lungs as she peered into the dim depths toward the back, where she’d expect the Leader of the Turks to be, but warm laughter came from her left, laughter she immediately recognized as Reno’s. She eagerly turned that way to find him huddled on a bar stool at the far end of the bar. She could also plainly see that he wasn’t alone. A woman in a slinky red dress with waist length raven hair sat on the stool next to him, half off the seat due to the fact that she had a head on his shoulder and a hand splayed across the small of his back. A second woman, tall, with closely cropped silver hair stood on his other side leaning one elbow against the bar, rapt eyes on his scarred face. Elena’s own eyes narrowed as her gaze drifted from the tattoo of a black rose on the woman’s arm, to the hoop in her eyebrow, to the tightly laced leather top that revealed more than it hid, to the black-painted nails. Elena’s breath stilled in her throat as she watched the woman idly wind and unwind the silky ends of Reno’s ponytail around one long sharp-tipped finger.

Just then, Reno lifted his head to take a drag on his cigarette and noticed Elena over the bent head of the raven-haired woman. His eyes fleetingly narrowed to match the hard expression in hers, and then he smirked and gave her a flip of his fingers in a little wave of acknowledgement. Releasing the smoke from his lungs, he lifted a small shot glass in his fingers and tossed down the contents. Pointedly stubbing out his cigarette in an overflowing ashtray, he shrugged the dark-haired woman away from his shoulder and moved to stand. “Gotta go, ladies,” he informed them in an unnecessarily loud voice, his green eyes on Elena as he turned away from the bar. The lady in red protested loudly, and the leather-clad woman released his ponytail, her eyes zeroing in on the direction of Reno’s gaze. “That your old lady?” she asked him curtly. A sheepish grin split his face, and he shrugged. Her interested regard of Elena turned to an angry glare. “You didn’t mention her,” she informed him in a voice dripping with venom. “You didn’t ask,” Reno drawled. He tossed a wad of gil on the bar. “Have another drink and you’ll hardly miss me.” He chuckled as they both dove for the money. He picked up his bag from the floor and slipped past them. “Later, girls,” he called over his shoulder as he moved away. Fighting over the gil, they didn’t respond, the lanky redheaded stranger already forgotten, just as he’d predicted.

When Reno looked around again, he found that Elena had vacated the spot where she’d been standing just inside the doorway, but he quickly found her. She’d elbowed herself in between two rather hefty men to plant her elbows at the bar at the opposite end from where he’d been sitting. Her unblinking hazel eyes glinted with icy malice as she glared her anger at him. He decided then that she had a facility for acting, playing the wronged spouse to the hilt even as he wondered why she’d come, and he would demand a reasonable answer of her too, as soon as he extricated her from the pub.

Just then he stumbled over an outstretched leg in his path, an obstacle he’d failed to notice for his attention on Elena’s irate face. He might have fallen, but for his innate agility and well-honed instincts. He immediately recovered his balance and looked up at Elena again, only to find the hazel eyes now filled with disgust. With a toss of her blonde head, she deliberately averted her eyes, shaking her head as the bartender wiped the glossy wood in front her and asked for her order. He knew, then, that she thought him to be drunk. His thin lips curved in a wry smile. Maybe he was drunk at that.

Swaying unsteadily, he made his way to her end of the bar, only stumbling once more to fall against a burly man who whipped around on his stool to grab a handful of Reno’s shirt. “Sorry…man…” Reno slurred, and the man released him with a disgusted curse.

The redheaded Turk shambled drunkenly on, pausing in front of the door to watch as the man on Elena’s right snaked an arm around her slim waist. With a sharp twist of her body, she threw the arm away and shot the man a warning look, but the glazed incomprehension in his eyes indicated that he lacked a sense of self-preservation due to the large amount of alcohol he’d probably imbibed. Already his arm was lifting again to return to her waist. What’s more, the huge man on her left was in the process of examining the curve of her derriere with rapt eyes. He decided she had her hands full already. She was certainly too busy to talk to him at the moment. His smile turned to a smirk and he strolled out the door.

Rude barely acknowledged Reno’s presence with a brief glance when he emerged from the pub. Reno planted himself on the other side of the pub doorway, bending to settle the bag at his feet before slumping back against the wall and reaching into his pocket for his silver cigarette case. “Why’d she leave?” he quietly asked as he lit up his cigarette.

“Didn’t she talk to you?”

“Not yet.” Reno expelled two streams of smoke from his nostrils as an outraged female voice rose above the noise of the crowd inside. “Get your hands off me, you cretin!” Reno smiled with satisfaction. “She’s otherwise occupied.”

In unison, both Turks leaned to look curiously around the doorjamb. A huge muscle-bound man had gathered Elena in his arms from behind, apparently as she’d planned to leave, stopping her in her tracks mere steps from the door. Now he struggled to turn her to face him as she fought to break his hold around her body. Rude turned to study Reno’s rapt face. “Shouldn’t we help her?” he asked blandly.

Reno winced as he watched her stab a pointed heel into the man’s canvas shoe. Then he slumped back against the wall to take another drag on his cigarette. “Elena’s a big girl,” he reminded him. “She can take care of herself.” He waited until Rude had settled back into his position against the wall before he spoke again. “So…anything wrong?”

Rude looked back toward the tower window. “There’s nothing to report. Everything is quiet.”

“Guess Caitlin changed her mind about leaving…” Reno speculated aloud.

Rude lifted his shoulders in a slight shrug. “She’s still talking, according to Elena.”

“Did Elena hear anything?” Reno asked with interest.

“You’ll have to ask her.”

“Well, I found out plenty.” Reno lifted the cigarette to his lips as he reviewed the information he’d gathered. “Found a couple of girls that kept company with Kendo whenever he came to town. There is no doubt that the man had an interest in the Wulfe kid, no matter what the kid thinks.”

An enraged shriek emanated from within, and both Turks jumped away from the wall as a man flew through the open doorway, each with a hand reaching back for a gun. Both visibly relaxed when they recognized the big man that landed with his teeth against the stone tiles. Reno pointed the end of his cigarette at Rude. “See. Told you, didn’t I?”

Before Rude could decide whether he would respond to the rhetorical question or not, Elena appeared in the doorway, her eyes blazing down at the injured man who lay moaning at her feet. With a cold smile to rival any of Reno’s, she stepped forward and let go a well-aimed kick. Reno’s lips twisted in a grimace as he watched the man curl up with a shrill shriek of his own. Rude winced behind his shades. Elena stalked out of the door, making sure to include a few spiked heeled steps across the man’s body, only to end up rounding on Reno to glare up into his face. “Gratuitous violence, Elena?” he murmured with a smirk.

“Retribution,” she replied icily. Then she shot out a hand and snatched the cigarette from his fingers. With a deep breath, she inhaled a lungful of smoke, and then released it in a fit of coughing as he eyed her in stunned bemusement. Screwing her face up in digust, she threw the barely smoked cigarette to the ground and shot out her hand again, this time to grab one bony wrist in unrelenting fingers. “I want to talk to you,” she informed him coldly. “In private.” His head snapped back as she jerked him away from the wall with a sharp tug. He looked back over his shoulder at Rude as he let her drag him away, his steps stumbling and unsteady. “Old lady’s pissed at me,” he explained to Rude with a happy grin. The big Turk frowned at him, and Reno’s drunken laughter filled the air. Elena tightened her grip unmercifully.

Weaving drunkenly, Reno resisted just enough to make her task difficult as she towed him to her intended destination, which turned out to be a dark narrow alleyway between two shops. At that point, he began to worry, especially in the face of her glacial anger. Maybe she planned to make an ill-advised attempt to knock him off. It surely would not be the first time a subordinate had sought to assassinate a Leader of the Turks in a power grab. On the other hand, she’d seemed rather…upset…at the prospect of his death before. Still, it was a woman’s prerogative to change her mind, he’d heard. He laughed drunkenly for her benefit as he dismissed the whole idea as preposterous.

They’d nearly reached the back of the alley when Elena finally released him in a dim wash of light from a second story window above. He could easily detect the unabated anger in her unwavering glare, her ire not doubt fueled by the strenuous effort required to drag him back here. “Re…port…’Le…ney…” he drawled in his drunken slur.

She angrily propped her hands on her hips, and Reno’s eyes followed the movement of one hand, where his gaze came to rest in the same place as her polished fingernails. “How can you act like this?” she demanded coldly. “How can you drink on the job and mess around while everybody else is doing what they’re supposed to be doing? How could you?!” Her voice had now taken on an air of hurt outrage.

“How could you?!” he imitated her in a high falsetto. “Why do you…care…’Leney?” He returned to his previous inebriated drawl.

“I don’t care,” she snapped. “Hardly. I just think you should be setting a better example. You’re the Leader of the Turks and you should act like it. You should be more…more like…”

“Tseng?” he queried coolly as he wondered that she had the nerve to upbraid him for his behavior.

“Yes!” she said triumphantly, and then she frowned. “I mean…no…”

Reno abruptly dipped his fingers into his shirt pocket. “I bought something…for you…’Leney…”

“Don’t call me that,” she told him slowly, suddenly disturbed by the strange expression in his green eyes. He silently lifted the lipstick up to her eyes. “I got it for you,” he told her with an expectant grin.

Elena studied the lipstick, her eyes shifting from pleasant surprise to curiosity to suspicion. She moved her wary eyes to his face, where her gaze sharpened on his thin cheeks. “Which one of those women did you slip that off of,” she asked derisively. She had planned a different word to describe the two females, but held the word from her tongue at the last second.

Reno’s eyebrows shot up in pained surprise. “I bought it…for you…with…my gil.”

“Then why does it match the lipstick marks on your face?” She threw her arms about her waist and turned her head away with a sniff of disdain. Reno stepped closer and brought the lipstick up to her nose. “It’s brand new. See?” He waved it beneath her eyes. “And it works.” Removing the cap, he took the lipstick tube in both hands to turn the base, making the lipstick go up and down.

“Will you give me that?” she snarled, snatching the lipstick from his fingers, only to stare at it uncertainly as though she had no idea what to do with it now. Playfully, Reno offered her the cap with a gallant bow, only to stumble against her as she reached to take it. He threw his arms around her to keep from falling. Then he straightened to look down at her with glazed eyes full of hurt. “You could say…thank you…’Leney…”

Elena stood frozen to stillness inside the circle of his arms, fascinated eyes on his face, at a complete loss for words. He decided she’d either been stunned by the direction his drunken mind had taken him or she’d been completely captivated by his charm. Most likely the former. “Or …better…yet…pay me…in kisses….” He puckered up his lips and bent his head closer.

At that, she threw her hands up between them to press her palms against his chest, applying just enough pressure to back him up, but not enough to break his hold. “No way, Reno. I don’t know where your mouth’s been.” Reno’s eyes turned pleading. “Come on…Esmeralda…you won’t give…your old man…a kiss?” He pushed against her restraining hands to draw her closer.

Her eyes rife with her disgust at the name, she risked dropping her hands to pry his arms away, easily breaking from his grasp when he readily relinquished his embrace. “Esmeralda left town,” she huffed disdainfully, “…In case you didn’t notice, Geo.” Angry again, she spun away to retrace her steps up the alley.

With amazing agility for one so inebriated, Reno darted after her to plant himself in her path. He smiled disarmingly. “How about you…’Leney? A kiss of gratitude…for your gift?”

“Only in your dreams Reno,” she sniffed, invoking one of her standard responses to him. She tried to step around him, but he simply moved a step to block her again. “My dreams just don’t satisfy me anymore, Elena,” he replied in a silky voice.

He swayed unsteadily and stumbled sideways as though he might fall. Instinctively, she threw out her hands to grab him and keep him upright, but he then fell against her instead. He instantly threw an arm around her waist again, merely in an attempt to steady himself, she'd thought. In the next moment, she rethought that assessment as he lifted a hand to her face to trace her cheek with warm fingers. “Ah…come on, ‘Leney…” he urged. Her hands came to rest flat against his chest again as she hesitantly shook her head. She hooded her eyes as he slipped his fingers into her hair. “No, Reno,” she murmured as she sought to verbally reinforce her refusal. Sighing, he laid his cheek against hers to whisper in her ear. “Come on Elena…just one…”

Her eyelids fluttered down as her knees weakened along with the last of her resolve. “Okay…Reno…but…just one,” she whispered.

Reno abruptly drew back from her, his arm falling away as he almost fell over his own feet. Elena reached out and dragged him back with the intention of setting him right again, but she ended up slipping her arms around his waist instead, tightening her hold to draw him into a close embrace as she pressed her body against him. She tipped her chin to gaze up into his narrowed green eyes with a tiny smile, completely oblivious to the wary surprise revealed there. “Just one, Reno,” she reiterated aloud. “And after that, you never ask me again,” she added sternly. “Got it?” Without waiting for his answer and completely disregarding the perplexity in his face, she squeezed her eyes shut and lifted her lips, even as she ruefully conceded that she’d embarked on a completely insane course of action. She had lost her freaking mind and she couldn’t even explain to herself why. The only consolation she had was that hopefully he wouldn’t remember the kiss later, even if she would. She admitted that idea didn’t bother her as much as it should.

Several seconds passed in silence between them as she waited for his kiss. Distant music from a piano came to her ears, someone playing a child’s tune she absently recognized but couldn’t name. Reno tightened his arms around her, and she waited still. Voices from the other end of the alley touched her ears, but the words didn’t sink into her mind for the rush of blood in her ears, and she didn’t care to make the effort to hear as she stood in the circle of his arms, still waiting. Suddenly Reno released her and moved away, stealing the warmth from her body and leaving her unkissed.

Stunned, her eyes flew open and she whirled around to see him strolling toward the exit of the alley. In a fit of pique, she stomped her foot. “Hey! What about my kiss?!” she called out impulsively. “Raincheck, baby,” he called back over his shoulder. She sprang into motion to chase after him, easily catching up to pass him and plant herself in his path this time. “Raincheck, my ass, Reno.” She smiled smugly. “You can forget it now. You’ll never get that chance again.” Reno smiled coolly down at her. “Tempting fate, Elena?” He brushed past her, pausing to whisper into her ear. “Maybe I didn’t like the conditions.”

Struggling to form a smart response, she spun around again, this time to watch curiously when he halted in front of the two teenage boys that stood talking together in the square, just beyond the end of the alley. Elena’s expression turned to confusion as Reno reached into his hip pocket to withdraw a pad and stub of a pencil. Slowly, she walked forward to listen as he started talking to them.

“Hi, guys,” Reno greeted in a friendly voice. “I just heard what you were talking about.” The two tall boys looked at him with wariness. “What’s it to ya, Mister?” one of them asked in a surly tone. Reno smiled easily. “Well…ya see…I’m a reporter for the Junon Daily…here doin’ a story about the refugees…and I heard what you were saying. My editors are very interested in stories of that sort.”

“Really? You’d put it in a story?” the other asked with eagerness. Reno rounded his eyes. “Are you kidding?! Story like that’d make the front page.” Reno appraised the effect of his words. One of the boys eyed him in disbelief. The other with keen interest. Reno focused his attention on that one. “Whatcha say, kid? Do you want your story on the front page?”

“I sure do, Mister. I’ll tell you my story.” The other one threw his hand in the air with a roll of his eyes and walked away. “See ya later, man.”

Elena had paused a few feet away, standing in shadow, mostly out of sight, but not out of earshot. She silently watched Reno work the boy for information, and she listened as the kid told him of the two bright flashes of blinding light they’d seen out in the fields that day, brighter than even the sun. She realized the importance of that information, even recognizing the implications somewhere inside her mind, but she could hardly think about it as the last few moments replayed in a continuous loop through her mind.

Her cheeks burned with embarrassment at her own indefinable behavior, especially as she couldn’t help but notice that all hint of his inebriation had vanished. She couldn’t divine the thoughts inside his devious mind that had motivated him, but she knew without a doubt that he’d been playing her, and she wasn’t happy about it. In fact, she was downright pissed. Her humiliation gave way to anger, and she leveled coldly blazing eyes on his face. Had he seen her murderous glare at just that moment, he might have feared for his life, but he didn’t. He wouldn’t look at her. And even if he had looked, he couldn’t have seen her in the shadows. Although she herself could see that he was otherwise engaged, busily writing the boy’s words in his little notepad, she imagined that he refused to look at her. And that was fine. He could just do his own thing and not look at her, but he would pay for his duplicity. She would see to that. With a toss of her head, she turned her glittering eyes away from his despicable face to glare into the square.

“So this just happened, right?” Reno prompted the kid along in his tale as he scribbled. “Ah no…man…” the kid shook his head empathetically. “…It happened hours ago. I just found out that Jace saw it too. Just now.” The pencil stopped in mid-scratch. Intent green eyes shot to the unwitting face. “How long ago?”

“Hours, man.”

“How many hours?” Reno watched the boy’s lips move as the kid replayed his day in his head, counting back the hours.

A large figure moved from the shadows into the pool of light cast from a streetlamp near the transit tower, and at her instant recognition of the man, the blood froze into instant ice in her veins. She gasped, and Reno’s head came around. “Elena?” he called softly as he scrutinized the shadows where he could barely make out her unmoving form. Stuffing the notepad in his pocket, he walked away, leaving the boy behind. “What about the story?” the boy called to his departing back. “I’ll have to get back to you later,” Reno replied brusquely. To his relief, Elena finally moved, turning to meet him as he strode up to her side. He could just make out the hand pressed to her throat in the gloom. “What’s the matter?” he demanded in a low voice. She raised her other hand to point at the man still standing beneath the lamppost looking about him. “That’s him, Reno”

Reno looked where she pointed. “Who, Elena?” He scrutinized the man, his brows drawing in concentration at the strange apparel; the woven sandals, the white leg wrappings, the scarlet tunic and beaded belt, the wrist bracelets and the stone tied around his neck, the decorative headpiece at the crown of his head made of bone and feather, the finely-toned muscles and superior height, taller even than Rude. Suddenly, Reno knew, the realization hitting him just as she spoke the strangled words. “The Katana man.” As though the man had heard her identification of him and sought to evade their scrutiny, he abruptly turned and strode away into the darkness, headed in the direction of the village entrance.

Reno tried to follow him with his eyes, watching for him to emerge into the next pool of light, but he didn’t appear. The redheaded Turk turned his attention to the doorway of the pub where Rude still lounged against the wall, this time with his foot on the black bag he’d obviously appropriated when Elena had forced his own abandonment of it, just as he’d expected Rude to do.

Reno pursed his lips and whistled a sequence of five notes, four short and one long, executed in a singsong manner that gave the whistle a playful nature. Rude lifted his head, and Reno repeated the same sequence. After a space of a few seconds, Rude lifted his arm to check his watch, and then with a huge yawn, he bent to pick up the bag and sauntered away.

At that point, Reno turned back to Elena and stepped close. “I want you to go back down the alley and wait for me, “ he murmured near her ear. She didn’t seem to hear him, her eyes still searching the square, her hand still clutching her throat. Reno recognized that she’d been so consumed by her fear of the Katana Man that everything else had ceased to exist in her mind. Including him. Fisting a hand around her upper arm, he dragged her against him, an act that instantly startled her out of her trance. A little exclamation of surprise jumped from her lips when Reno snaked an arm around her waist and unceremoniously dragged her pistol from the waistband of her pants. Deliberately, he turned her in his arms to point her in the direction of the alley. Standing behind her, he reached around to press the gun into her hand, taking her hand in his to close her fingers around the grip. “Wait for me in the alley,” he commanded again. “And be careful,” he added more quietly. Lifting his hands to her shoulders, he gave her a little push to start her on the path. Finally, she seemed to remember what was expected of her. With a little nod, mostly to herself, she dashed away, careful to keep her steps quiet as she vanished into the darkness.

Alert eyes constantly moving as he closely watched the shadowy square for any sign of threatening movement in his direction or in the direction of the nearby alley entrance, Reno dragged his gun into one hand and his magrod into the other. He flipped the safety switch on his gun to the off position and extended the magrod with a snap of his wrist. Slipping back into the deeper shadows beneath the overhang of a nearby store, he pressed a thumb against the charge button on the magrod and leaned against the wall to wait for Rude.

Shortly, a low whistle came from his left, and Reno immediately whistled back. Within seconds, Rude stood beside him, not having made the slightest sound that would announce his arrival. “What’s up?” Rude asked, his voice no less curt for its softness. Without taking his eyes away from the town square, Reno replied coolly. “We’ve got trouble.”

“What kind of trouble,” Rude asked more sharply.

“Double trouble,” Reno informed him lowly. “…And one of them wields a katana.”

Elena had taken up a position in the darkest corner at the far end of the alley beyond the swath of yellow light that still spread across a portion of the alley from the window above. Gun held at the ready, she avoided looking into the light, instead staring at the darkly shadowed wall beside her to prevent her eyes from adjusting to the dim illumination. Her head cocked to the side, she listened for any hint of an approach with the full knowledge that anyone who ventured down the alley with the intention of harming her would have to pass through the light first, and she would make certain that the intruder would walk no further.

A sound came from the entrance of the narrow lane, a muted clicking that sounded like someone softly snapping their fingers as they silently walked. Which was exactly what she expected Reno would do to announce his presence in the darkness so she wouldn’t shoot him inadvertently, even though he had to know that she would never shoot at a target she could not visually identify. Better safe than sorry however.

A moment later, she spotted him when he skirted the very edge of the pool of light, his path making him only fleetingly visible to anyone else who might be watching. She kept her alert eyes focused on the alleyway as he stooped down next to her and settled the bag to the pavement.

“Where’s Rude?” she asked in a soft voice. “I sent him to Caitlin,” he replied just as softly, unzipping the bag to find the penlight.

“What about Elmyra?”

“Rude will handle her.”

Reno flipped on the penlight and held it up. “Hold this.”

She readily took the light and directed it into the open bag, watching as he swiftly removed the blue steel parts of a long barreled rifle and swiftly assembled the weapon with the speed and deftness of a man that had carried out the same task more than once before. After attaching the rifle sight and screwing on a silencer, he carefully set the weapon aside atop a row of trashcans behind him and held out his hand. “Give me your gun,” he ordered.

She passed it over, and he checked the load and screwed a silencer onto the barrel of her gun as well. Handing it back, he drew his own gun from the waistband at his spine and checked the load. “I want you on Avian Wulfe,” he told her. “I want you to locate him and stay with him, whether he likes it or not.”

“So you think he’s in danger?”

“I know he’s in danger,” Reno flatly replied. He jammed the gun back into his waistband.

“What are you going to do?” she asked anxiously. She was pretty sure she already knew, and that knowledge set her pulse racing.

Reno didn’t respond, keeping his silence as he took the penlight from her and tossed it back into the bag. Then he zipped up the bag and stood to walk a few steps away into darkness.

“Reno?” she hissed, but he didn’t answer then, waiting until he came back in a few moments without the bag. He bent to scoop up the rifle into his arms. “I’m going to take care of this problem, Elena.” He smiled coldly, and though she couldn’t see his face in the shadows, she couldn’t miss the taunt in his voice when he again spoke. “I don’t want you losing your pretty head over this guy.”

A nervous smile tentatively formed on her lips at his comment. “Don’t you think we should try to capture him Reno?” Elena asked practically. “Shouldn’t we find out what he knows?” Elena certainly didn’t want to try to catch him as she knew herself to be no match for the mysterious warrior, but she thought Reno might. On the other hand, she could hardly entertain the idea of Reno attempting to capture the Katana Man at all.

Reno shoved an arm through the rifle strap and settled the gun against his back. Then he jumped up to grab the lowest rung of a fire ladder above his head. “It’s not worth the risk, Elena,” he coolly explained his decision. “I’m pretty sure that guy would slit his own throat before he’d spill a word.”

The ladder rattled down, and Reno set a boot on the bottom rung and gave the ladder a good shake. “You better get going,” he reminded her. “And remember, we know for sure there are two. Be on your guard. Be discreet. Avoid entanglements at all cost. If you see the Katana man before I do, or his companion, just walk the other way. Your mission is to get to Avian and keep him in his room until I tell you it’s clear.” He silently stared into the shadows in a fruitless attempt to see her face. He wanted to be sure that she didn’t deviate from his instructions. “Do you understand, Elena?”

He saw her nod in the darkness. “I understand, Reno.”

“Good,” he said approvingly. “Now get to work.”

She nodded more slowly this time, and then she reluctantly turned away, only to pause when she heard the metallic clank of metal against brick as the ladder rattled beneath the weight of his ascent. “Don’t lose your head, Reno,” she softly called back over her shoulder.

“Only over you, Baby,” he called back from somewhere above.

She couldn’t think of a single retort to match his, and frankly, her heart wasn’t in it. With a sweet smile that one would rarely find on her face, she whirled and dashed away.

“Scarlett,” Reeve breathed in stunned disbelief at his first sight of the person that held the gun to his head. He noted the half unbound and tangled condition of her golden hair, the slinky red dress, now torn and stained, that she’d been wearing the last time he’d seen her, and the trademark red high heel shoes she always wore, the footwear now scuffed and scraped beyond repair.

“I’m glad you haven’t forgotten me, Reeve,” she said in a sultry voice. “Did you miss me?”

“No,” he curtly replied. “I did not.”

“No matter,” she pressed the barrel of the gun harder against his temple as a satisfied smile curved her lipstick-smudged lips. “You’re mine now.” She shifted the smile from Reeve to Cornell who stood to the side, watching with uneasy ice blue eyes. “Good job, Mr. Cornell,” she smiled at the wary engineer. “You were dead right about where he’d emerge from the tunnels.”

Ian Cornell switched his attention to Reeve’s face long enough to see the cold accusation in the Shinra manager’s eyes. Troubled, he bent his head to study his shoes. Scarlett abruptly removed the gun from Reeve’s temple and crossed the concrete toward the engineer as she spoke. “In fact, you’ve been so good, you deserve a reward.” Cornell looked around him wildly and stumbled a step back as she came on, but he really had nowhere to go. Scarlett’s soldiers were on all sides.

Without a pause in stride, she came up against him and reached around his neck to grab his short bob of a ponytail, exerting downward pressure to bring his head down and to the side against his instinctive resistance. She planted a kiss on his unresponsive mouth, and he tolerated the unwanted assault only because he didn’t dare repel her when he knew at least two of the soldiers had rifles loosely pointed in his direction. When she released him, he drew back against the wall with a shudder as her maniacal laughter rang around the room.

Reeve could have made a run for it during Scarlett’s distasteful encounter with the engineer as no one held either eyes or guns on him at that moment. No one but for the copper haired girl. Even now, she watched him with a question in her eyes despite the fact that the soldier still held her firmly in his grasp, a hand over her mouth. He could try to escape, but he wouldn’t. He couldn’t leave her behind. He tried to offer her a tiny smile of reassurance, but he couldn’t quite force his numb lips to display an emotion he couldn’t dredge from within him. Reeve hid his deep concern from her, opting instead to return his attention to the duplicitous Cornell. “So you’d rather have her in charge?” he snidely demanded of the engineer who still stood with his back pressed to the wall. Cornell slowly shook his head.

“Of course you would, darling,” Scarlett informed him blithely. She kissed her finger and pressed her fingertip against his lips. He jerked his head away, and she laughed again.

Finally, Reeve comprehended the fact that Cornell had probably been coerced into this position by the predatory female executive, most likely at risk of his own life. Reeve could hardly blame him under the circumstances. “I guess you’re not on her side, are you?” he asked with an easy casualness that he was surprised he could manage just then. Ian Cornell deliberately wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “No, Sir,” he said very succinctly.

“You better shut up while you’re ahead, Mr. Cornell,” Scarlett warned him with a chilly smile as she pressed the barrel of the gun against his nose. Though she pushed hard enough that the pain made the engineer’s eyes water, his eyes remained defiant on her face. However, he did make the wise decision to hold his thoughts from his tongue.

“How did you escape, Scarlett?” Reeve asked conversationally, mostly to draw her attention away from the beleaguered Cornell than for any real desire to know. The fact that she had escaped, alive and well, to wreck his plans was all he needed to know. Scarlett was eager to tell however, and she turned to him with an overly bright glint in her blue eyes. He decided he might have to rethink his assessment of the depth of her madness as well.

“I jumped to the catwalk and sneaked away under cover of the explosion,” she informed him smugly, drawing the gun away from Cornell to take a few steps in Reeve's direction.

“And Heidegger?” Reeve asked with a bit more interest as it suddenly occurred to him that the General might have taken over the military again, a legitimate move, in fact, as he had not been relieved of his position.

Scarlett started laughing again, pressing the hand that held the gun against her chest in her mirth. “That fat lummox? He couldn’t move fast enough,” she sneered. “His own fault. He’d be alive today if he’d shoved away from the table and worked out in the fitness center more.” She ran lascivious eyes over Reeve’s form. “He could have been in fine shape. Like you Reeve.” She sauntered over to run a finger down his cheek. “How about it, Reeve? You and me? In possession of the planet. And each other…” The Shinra manager held himself tightly against the shudder that threatened to overtake his body. The lecherous woman had come on to him many times over the years, but his pointed rejection had always been enough to dissuade her for a while, until she would decide to test him again. But now, she seemed to be teetering on the very edge of her control.

“I’d rather die,” he said between gritted teeth. As she had with Cornell, she pressed herself close, raising her lips as she pressed the barrel of the pistol under his chin. Reeve held himself perfectly still, staring over the woman’s head as he waited for the violation to be over with. But she denied him a quick finish to it, pausing with her smudged lips just short of his mouth. “And so you shall,” she murmured. Suddenly, she shoved him back into the wall and raised the gun.

At Scarlett’s move, the copperhaired girl bit down on the soldier’s hand. With a protracted squeal of pain, the soldier jerked his hand away, unconsciously loosening his hold as he held the injured member up to his inspection. Instantly, she broke away and ran, not in the opposite direction where she might have a chance to escape, not the other way as she’d promised him, but straight for the gun that Scarlett held.

Reeve catapulted himself away from the wall. “Gods, no!” he shouted in horror even as a startled Scarlett brought the gun around to level on the oncoming girl. She convulsively fired just as Reeve threw himself against her arm to deflect her shot, but the bullet sank home. With a sharp cry of pain, the girl clutched at her chest, and then, with a stunned look on her face, slowly toppled over the edge of the walkway to fall with a loud splash into the sewage channel below. Cornell sprang away from the wall, relinquishing the relative security of his immobility to dash to the edge of the concrete walkway to see if he could possibly do anything to save the girl.

Reeve and Scarlett both wound up on the concrete floor after the collision, and Scarlett leapt to her feet, anger fulminating in her eyes as she deliberately smoothed her bedraggled skirt back into place and watched Reeve rise more slowly. He paused on one knee and lifted his eyes to the place he’d last seen the girl, only to encounter the pained eyes of the engineer. Cornell slowly shook his head. “She’s gone,” he reluctantly informed him. Reeve’s face fell as he slumped in upon himself. Scarlett chose just that moment to gain her retribution, wildly swinging the pistol against his face as she released her rage on him. The pistol sight slashed his cheek, but he hardly felt it. Numbly, he rose to his feet as he lifted a hand to his burning face, drawing back his hand to look curiously at his blood stained fingers.

“How could you do that?!” Scarlett screeched. “You’ve made me ruin your face! You idiot!”

Reeve looked at her, his eyes still wide in his shock. Pressing a hand against the bleeding gash, he raised his other hand to point at where the girl had stood just moments before. “You just… killed…that…child…” he said in a voice shaking with a mixture of pain and disbelief

“Hmph, I didn’t kill her. “ Scarlett pointed a ragged fingernail at him. “You did.”

Reeve let his bloodied hand fall limply to his side. Scarlett was right. She might have pulled the trigger, but he’d killed the girl when he didn’t make her get away from him back in the tunnels. He had only himself to blame. He’d cost the girl her life, and that fact would forever weigh on his heart. Like a crippled man, he staggered brokenly to fall against the wall, defeated by his own culpability.

“Silly girl,” Scarlett waved a dismissive hand. “She should have minded her own business. I wouldn’t have killed you. I’ll have to wait until later, because I need you now.”

“For what?” Reeve asked dully.

“To straighten those people out.”


“The people.” Scarlett brandished the gun over her head and everyone in the room but Reeve cringed. At that moment, he didn’t care if she managed to shoot him. “For some reason the fools seem to like you,” she shrilly complained. “They are getting completely out of hand,” she pointed one long ragged nail at him. “So you, Mr. City Manager are going to manage them. You are going to settle them down, and then you are going to inform them that I’m now in charge.”

“And you think that will settle them down?” Reeve asked dryly, dredging up ample sarcasm for his words from somewhere deep inside him.

“Of course,” Scarlett enthused. “I’ll have the Reeve Alexander stamp of approval.” She patted her hair into place, as though it weren’t a total mess of tangles and clumps of matted hair. Abruptly, she reached out to grab Reeve’s jacket sleeve and yanked him away from the wall with surprising strength. “You might have thought you could steal the company out from under me, Alexander, but you were wrong.” She gave him a shove toward the ladder exit. “Now let’s go set the record straight.”

Scarlett marched him away with one hand on his elbow and the other hand, still fisted around the pistol, pressed against his spine. The half dozen soldiers followed behind with Cornell sandwiched in the middle, their joined footsteps resonating behind Reeve in the concrete tunnel. Scarlett forced Reeve onto the ladder, leveling her pistol at him as he climbed. Just before his head would have cleared the hatchway above him, he turned anguished eyes to the place where the copperhaired girl had fallen, and sorrow welled inside him when he suddenly realized, at that moment, that he’d never bothered to ask her name. He didn’t even know the identity of the girl who had given her life to help him, and now he never would.

Rude suddenly appeared in the doorway of the tower room, his silent footsteps on the metal steps giving no hint of his impending arrival. Caitlin’s first indication of his presence came from Elmyra. She suddenly stopped talking, and then her eyes turned fierce and her face contorted in anger. Caitlin sprang from her chair to confront the big Turk as he crossed the wooden floor on soundless cat feet.

“I do not want you here!” Elmyra snapped as she rose to her feet, careful not to shout even though she wanted to scream at the top of her lungs at the violation of her space by the despicable Turk. She simply would not wake the girls. “Please go! Now!”

Caitlin held up a placating hand. “Wait, Elmyra.” She pleaded for the older woman’s cooperation with wide azure eyes. Elmyra glared at the diminutive woman as though she might protest, but then she dropped heavily into her chair with a loud huff to make her displeasure at Caitlin’s interference known.

Rude reached out to draw the shutters in, one after the other, as Caitlin crossed the floor, meaning to go to his side to ask him more privately about the reason he’d come. “Get back,” he said tersely. She halted in mid-step. “What’s the matter?” She forced her voice to remain calm even as she pressed a hand to her churning stomach. Something bad must have happened for Rude to risk coming to the tower room against Elmyra’s wishes.

Rude put his back to the closed tower window to look down at her. “A man with a katana has come to Kalm,” he informed her in his customary monotone.

“He’s here?” Caitlin lifted a hand to her mouth in shock. “How did he find us?”

Rude shrugged his ignorance and left her to return to the doorway, drawing his gun from beneath the untucked shirt as he took up a position just outside the door where he could see both the room and the stairway all the way to the bottom.

At the sight of the gun, Elmyra again rose to her feet. “What’s going on here?” she hissed at Caitlin in vehement inquiry. “Who the hell are you to be running with Turks?”

Caitlin cast her guilty eyes to the ground. “You probably don’t really want to know.”

“Yes, I do want to know,” Elmyra argued angrily. “I’ve just told you my whole life’s story, and now I have to wonder just who I’ve been talking to.”

“Don’t, Caitlin,” Rude warned aloud.

“Please, don’t ask, Elmyra.” Caitlin’s eyes turned pleading. “It’s such a long story. One I would love to tell you, but…just…not now…”

Elmyra glared at her stubbornly. “I will not take your refusal lightly.”

Caitlin purposely put her back to the watchful Turk in the doorway, unwilling to experience the brunt of his silent censure, and she sighed her surrender. “The Turks are here to protect Rachel and me. The man with the katana that Rude just mentioned, he’s trying to kidnap her, and we don’t know why. That’s why we need to find out more about her.”

“And you?” Elmyra said with a measure of disbelief. “Yes…me too,” Caitlin reluctantly replied.

“Why?” the woman persisted.

Caitlin dropped into the chair across the table from Elmyra and slumped wearily in place at her final decision to tell her. “I’m Caitlin.”

“I know that,” Elmyra reminded her.

Caitlin looked up into Elmyra’s gray eyes. “Caitlin Shinra.” She could almost feel the wave of disapproval at her revelation from the doorway behind her, but she avoided looking at the silently fuming Turk just then.

Elmyra stared at for long moments; her mouth drifting ajar as she studied the small featured face with new eyes, easily recognizing the truth of her statement in the familiar visage. Caitlin sat silently beneath her perusal, until the woman finally asked her the inevitable question. “How is it that you live?”

“That is the long story I would rather not get into right now,” Caitlin reminded her.

Elmyra nodded as she sat back in her chair and crossed her arms, a knowing look on her face. “So,” she spoke coldly. “The Shinra Corporation survives. Even if virtually thousands do not.”

Caitlin inclined her head in acknowledgment. “Yes, Elmyra, the Shinra Corporation lives.” She sat back in her own chair and steadily held the woman’s gaze despite the disdain she found there. “However, the company under my father and my brother was broken and corrupt, perverted from the beneficent entity it should have been. I assure you that I plan to see that the Shinra Corporation is reborn. I visualize the company serving a much different purpose.”

“What purpose,” the woman asked, her voice still chilly.

“The Shinra Corporation will work to build better lives for the people of the planet, working for peace and prosperity for everyone instead of engaging in the destruction of the planet and the people’s quality of life purely for the purpose of immense profit.”

Elmyra tilted her head as a wry smile touched her lips. “I’ve longed to see such power and wealth used for good.”

“Me too.” Caitlin smiled with relief at the apparent return of the woman’s good will. “And it will happen. You will see.”

Elmyra found herself convinced by the sincerity in the blue Shinra eyes, but she’d come by her cynicism the hard way. “I hope I do. But forgive me if I don’t hold my breath.”

“Fair enough,” Caitlin readily agreed. Then she smiled so beautifully that Elmyra couldn’t help but respond no matter how much she tried to school her wayward lips.

Elena cautiously made her way up the causeway, figuring that Avian Wulfe would still be holed up in his room. As she silently climbed the stairs, she mentally reworked the spiel she would give him when she knocked on his door. She shook her head in disgust as she mentally discarded the whole thing, recognizing that the truth would actually work better in this case, a welcome change from the Turks’ typically deceptive mode of operation she supposed. Then again, he might refuse her help even if she did tell him that Kendo’s compatriots were in town. In that event, she’d just have to place him in protective custody, an eventuality that didn’t trouble her at all. She could manage the task with ease. Her biggest problem regarding Avian would to be to keep him from stabbing her with that wicked looking knife while, at the same time, making sure he came to no harm. She didn’t envision any difficulty whatsoever.

Still climbing, she shot a cautious glance around her, quickly returning her gaze to the route in front of her as she set one foot on the upper level. She came to an abrupt halt at first sight of the large figure of the man standing just beyond the head of the stairs, illuminated in the wash of light from the window of the shop across the walkway. For the second time that night her blood ran cold, this time at her instant recognition of the black hat. However, she didn’t permit her fear at the memory of the spray of bullets that had taken her down in the pipe chases to debilitate her as she had allowed to happen at her vivid recall of the gleaming blade of the katana sweeping toward her exposed neck. In fact, she used the rush of adrenaline to sharpen her senses and center her mind.

“Pretty girls first,” the man said cheerfully. Elena blinked at the warm voice, a feeling of uncertainly sweeping over her. Although the lighting wasn’t great, she could clearly see the broad smile on the man’s face. Could it be that she was mistaken? With narrowed eyes, she appraised the man’s appearance more thoroughly. The long black coat was certainly not the flowing cloak she remembered. And she had to admit that anyone could possess a flat-brimmed hat like that. He appeared to be exactly what he seemed, a gentleman allowing a woman to exit the stairway before him rather then crowding past her on the dark steps. Certainly, the man didn’t seem to recognize her. But then again…he probably wouldn’t…

Elena kept the gun pressed flat against her right leg, the pistol merged into her dark form in the gloom. She could lift the gun now. Whip it up and shoot him right between the eyes. But she wouldn’t. She just didn’t know. They guy could be the village doctor for all she knew.

“Go ahead,” the man patiently urged, sweeping a hand past him to indicate she should move on. “I promise I won’t bite you.”

A cool smile touched Elena’s mouth. She simply had to know. Reno’s order to back away from any threat she encountered had already slipped her mind, primarily because her thoughts had been seized by her realization that she could well be facing the man that had shot Reno with her gun, a fatal injury that would have killed him but for one special child. She welcomed the opportunity to gain her revenge, for herself, but more, for Reno. She tilted her head coquettishly. “Didn’t we meet a couple of days ago?” she inquired slyly. “In the Midgar tunnels?”

Although the man’s eyes initially went blank, he did finally react, and the resultant shock in the man’s face told her everything she needed to know. Instantly, she whipped the pistol into play, even as the man moved with surprising speed for his size, spinning into motion to kick the gun from her hand. Her pistol hit the ground with a loud clatter somewhere in the darkness several feet away. Elena had expected him to go for his gun, but apparently he’d realized that he wouldn’t have time to draw, and instead had effectively moved to disarm her. She’d made a critical mistake, and as a result, she’d lost her advantage.

The man threw his coat back to reach for his gun, and she knew her only hope would be to prevent him from getting it. There was no earthly way she could hope to recover hers in time. She threw herself at him, slamming into his hard muscled, immovable body as she grabbed his right hand in both of hers. He already had the gun half drawn, and she dug in every fingernail she could bring to bear, digging deep enough into his skin to draw blood. He grunted at the pain, but he didn’t let go, managing to clear the gun from the holster even as he drew back with his other hand to let fly a fist at her face. Desperately, Elena held on as she dodged the blow, agilely ducking her head out of the way. Then she lifted her foot high to slam the spiked heel into his shoe. Her action rewarded her with a heartfelt curse, but he still didn’t loosen his hold on the gun.

Instead, he yanked the gun into the air in a concerted attempt to break her punishing, claw-tipped hold on his hand, but she managed to maintain her tenacious grip, even as he dragged her up on tiptoe in his valiant struggle to jerk the weapon free so he could take aim. Just as valiantly, she fought tooth and nail to prevent that eventuality, stabbing at his feet with her heels and digging her sharp nails in even deeper than before. Throwing his free hand up to grab a fistful of her blonde hair, he jerked her head into an uncomfortable angle. The muscles in her neck and jaw straining, Elena struggled to break away, but she could feel herself gradually weakening. The man was just too strong. Desperately, she raked at his calves with a heel, but she just could not attain the leverage to inflict any degree of damage.

Suddenly, she surrendered and let go with both hands, instantly moving to drive her bloodied nails at his eyes. Startled, he let go of her hair to throw his hand over his face, and she sprang away from him as his thoughts stammered at the vivid image that exploded in his mind of her nails sinking into his defenseless eyes. It was just enough to knock him off his stride momentarily, and even though he recovered in seconds, his hesitation gave her ample time to meet his temporarily lowered gun with a spinning kick of her own. Unfortunately, he didn’t let go despite his sharp intake of breath at the pain, and she inevitably found herself staring down the barrel of his gun. Slowly, she backed away, panting for breath as she watched him with marble hard eyes even as her mind scrambled frantically to come up with an avenue of escape, but she recognized quickly that there was nowhere to go before he could shoot. The man rearranged his face into a smile that reeked with evil intent. She had no trouble recognizing him now, and she well remembered his complete willingness to shoot her down, most likely without turning a hair. As Reno had pointed out earlier in the day, she wasn’t wearing her bulletproof vest. She knew that he would kill her this time. Hiding her trembling beneath a cool bravado, she shifted her unblinking stare from his face to his hand. Elena could almost sense when his finger tightened on the trigger, and her breath caught in her lungs as she braced herself for the lethal shot.

Reno crouched in the darkness at the top of the high wall and steadied the rifle across his crooked knee. Bending his head, he squinted to peer one-eyed through the sight at the target that he’d finally acquired after a nerve-wracking trek across the precarious roofs of the residences and businesses of Kalm as well as a partial circuit of the village along the exterior wall. Any other time, Reno would have opted for a more direct route to his target, but there were still too many people out and about despite the late hour to risk sneaking around town with the long barreled rifle in his possession. The local constabulary would have confiscated the weapon in the blink of an eye if he were spotted, unless he chose to get messy. He preferred to handle this matter more discreetly, just as he did all matters of this nature, especially as he imagined that Caitlin Shinra would have a great deal to say if he were to handle himself so clumsily. He wouldn’t get caught if it came down to it, but she would know. He simply could not take the chance that he might wind up in a situation where he would have to choose between giving up his weapon and using it. He knew he would be forced to surrender the gun to the local law enforcement, and the murderous Katana Man would remain on the loose to maraud at will.

The unorthodox route had also provided him a superior vantage point from which he was able to view the entire square as he sought out the location of the Katana Man, and now the oblivious man stood beneath his gun sight, just two stories down and a few feet out, a position that definitely worked in Reno’s favor. The Turk knew he would only have one chance. Once he’d fired, the Katana man would take cover if he missed, and he would know he was made and go on the attack. He’d just have to make the first shot count, and he knew he could. He was hardly a novice, and he had no compunctions about shooting a man in cold blood, particularly this one. This man would have taken Caitlin and used her to a bad end. And this man had fully intended to kill Elena, and would have but for the intervention of Cloud Strife. He would not give the Katana Man another chance to succeed.

Deliberately, Reno took aim, setting the target directly in the crosshairs, and then he cursed beneath his breath as a figure passed between him and his target. He drew away from the sight to stare down into the square. A group of three men had now stopped in the entrance to the town, apparently pausing to shoot the shit before going their separate ways. He thought he recognized them from the pub. Irritation drew his sharp features into a frown, and he set the rifle up, planting the butt against the stone surface of the wall as he forced himself to still watchfulness and resisted the urge to light up a smoke. He wasn’t about to do anything to risk a missed opportunity to take the Katana man out of the picture.

Several moments passed as Reno sat completely immobile and mentally urged the men on, threatening them with all manner of imagined mayhem if they didn’t obey, and then offering them fortunes of imaginary gil to get on down the road. Inevitably, he grew bored with his mental exhortations, and his idle mind gradually drifted back to the alley and the memory of Elena’s upturned face, her mascara darkened lashes feathering her pale cheeks and her tinted lips quiescent as she’d waited for his kiss. Unbeknownst to her, he’d found himself hesitating, caught in a quandary of indecision at her startling and totally unexpected capitulation. He’d been saved from struggling against his desire to take what she offered by the intervention of the two teenagers and their animated chatter about the lights in the fields. He now found himself feeling strangely disappointed at the reprieve. In fact, it didn’t seem like a reprieve at all, but a lost opportunity. His frown returned with a vengeance at where his thoughts had traveled. He’d meant to string her along for only awhile with his drunken antics, but his playful joke had taken a surprising turn, and his amusement at her expense had backfired. What he had meant to be all in fun had turned into…an irritation.

His green eyes sharpened as the men bade each other farewell and split apart, two departing on separate routes into the tent city, the other one heading back into town. The Katana Man had kept his back turned to the three men the entire time they’d been there as he’d casually stared up at the sky with crossed arms as though he had nothing better to do than count stars, but now that the interlopers were gone, he returned to his original alert position, actively scanning the square. Reno knew that he was waiting for his companion to show. Momentarily, the Turk wondered if he should wait for the other one before he acted. Two birds with one stone. Take out the Katana Man with his first shot. Drop the other as he moved to fire. Almost as soon as he considered the idea, he dismissed it. He could not take the chance of losing this one. The Katana Man clearly posed the greater danger of the two. The other man he knew he could best in a one on one confrontation.

Snapping the rifle back down into position, he again steadied the weapon and dropped his head to peer though the sight. He would never have a clearer shot than now. Reno tightened his finger on the trigger, but just as he would have pulled, the Katana man suddenly moved from the crosshairs. Irritated, the Turk raised his eye from the gun sight to see that the man now stood a few paces inside the gate, his posture tense and his attention captivated by some unknown object of interest. Even as Reno watched, the man took several hesitant steps further in. Still holding the rifle at the ready, Reno shot a quick look around the square, but no unusual sight met his eyes, and only the quiet night sounds of the tiny village met his ears. Certainly, he saw nothing that would account for the man’s rapt stare. Reno again found himself caught in a quandary as he tried to decide whether to line up his target again or first attempt to find out what had caught the Katana Man’s attention. In the end, he stood and leaned out away from the wall to see what the Katana Man saw, but he couldn’t see a damn thing at the other end of the square from his vantage point.

Suddenly, the man took off in a run, and Reno cursed out loud. In his hesitation, he’d let another opportunity slip from his fingers. Quickly depositing the rifle on top of the wall, he set off running himself. He had no idea what had set the Katana Man to flight, but he feared that Elena might have something to do with it, judging from the direction the man had been heading. Knowing he was desperately short on time, Reno took to the rooftops again, agilely leaping across the gap between wall and roof to run up the steep peak of the closest house. He vaulted over the peak of the roof to scramble down the other side, partway on his feet and partway on his butt.

At the edge of the roof, he rested on one knee and peered over the eave into the alley below. He was higher up than he would have liked, but he had no other viable option. Grabbing the rain gutter in both hands, he swung his long legs over the side and shoved himself off the roof, praying fervently that the gutter wouldn’t break loose from the house upon taking the full weight of his six-foot, two-inch frame. His luck held, and he dropped heavily to the stone tiles below, flexing his knees to take the brunt of the impact. Yanking the pistol from the waistband of his jeans, he broke into a sprint, his haste fueled by the knowledge of the necessity to acquire the Katana Man’s current position before the man decided to actually wield the damn katana, especially if the matter that had drawn the man’s attention involved Elena.

Racing out into the square, Reno skidded to a halt, his eyes darting all around for a sign of the oversized warrior. Fortunately, he spotted him almost immediately, walking quickly toward the transit tower. Reno followed more slowly, holding the handgun down beside him as he nodded at a young couple walking hand in hand in the direction of the village gate. There were a few people around, and Reno noted each one’s location as he inexorably closed in on his target. He realized that he would have to get much closer before he could risk a shot.

The Katana man had finally stopped walking, and he now stood in the shadow of the tower, his stance tensely watchful. Crossing the tiles in an easy stroll, Reno had almost reached a point that he deemed to be close enough to the target to take his shot when the scene that the warrior watched finally came into his own angle of view. Even as Reno turned his head to look, the gunshot cracked loudly in the hushed atmosphere of the village square. His breath catching harshly in his throat, he stumbled to a stop as all interest in the Katana Man flew from his incredulous mind.

A blur of movement in his peripheral vision brought Ozzie’s satisfied eyes jerking around from the crumpled form of the downed woman on the concrete, but too late. His gun almost flew from his hand at the bone jarring impact from his left, but he managed to maintain his grip, until he landed painfully on his side with the brunt of his weight falling onto his bent arm at the very edge of the walkway. His wrist banged into one of the metal bolts that lined the very rim. His fingers reflexively opened at the bone numbing sensation, and his gun tumbled to the street below, landing with a loud clatter.

Closing his mind to the excruciating pain, he held his injured arm close, and rolled to his feet in time to see his assailant struggling to rise from the pavement. Throwing his coat away from his side, he swiftly drew his other gun in his left hand and aimed it at the bent head of the figure struggling to regain his feet. With teeth gritted against the pain, he grabbed him by the collar and yanked him to his feet.

Elena didn’t waste the unexpected reprieve. Before the man in the black hat had even hit the ground, she sprang into action; flinging herself the few feet to the place she’d heard her gun spin away into the darkness beyond the light. Spotting the weapon, a stark black shape against dark gray paving, she swooped down to snatch her gun up into anxious hands. On one knee, she spun in place to level the barrel at the man that had just tried to kill her again, and still could. Unfortunately, the man had already regained his feet, apparently more agile than his bulk would imply, and he now held her would-be savior tightly in hand, a second gun pressed firmly into his stomach. Keeping her aim unwaveringly fixed on the man’s chest, she slowly rose to her feet.

The man in the black hat simply dragged the young man around in front of him and planted the business end of his handgun against his captive’s ear as he fixed her with a quizzical gaze. “Nice move,” he congratulated her. “You Turks are just full of slippery tricks.”

“You know it,” Elena replied coolly.

“I’ll wager your illustrious leader could not come up with a trick to put all the blood back into his body though.”

Elena’s brow wrinkled at the taunt in his voice, and her eyes filled with deadly intent.

“You shoot me, I’ll shoot him,” Ozzie warned her with a cool smile even as he warily eyed her pistol over the young man’s shoulder.

An equally cool smile touched Elena’s tinted lips as she shrugged indifferently. “Do I care?”

“Well, I sure don’t care,” Ozzie replied with a puzzled frown. “I’ll just kill him first.”

“Really?” Elena arched an eyebrow in feigned surprise. “I thought your gang wanted him.”


“Sure. Isn’t Kendo with your gang?”

“How did you…” Ozzie slammed his mouth shut at the realization that he’d basically confirmed her assumption. With a tense shrug, he conceded his irretrievable mistake.

“What does Kendo have to do with anything?” he asked her with forced indifference.

“He did die trying to kidnap that boy, didn’t he?”

“Kendo didn’t…” He clamped his mouth shut again.

“You’re not very bright, are you?” Elena smirked. Though she didn’t dare take her eyes off the man in black to look directly at Avian Wulfe’s face, she did notice the trembling fingers that inched ever so slowly beneath the hem of the woven vest. She knew then that the current situation, tenuous at best, was about to become completely unpredictable. Her muscles tight with anticipation, she remained completely still, alert for the first opportunity to come her way.

Careful to keep his gun firmly in place, and hold watchful eyes on the armed Turk, Ozzie stepped around Avian to take a quick look at his captive. “Well, I’ll be damned.” He turned back to look at Elena with amazement, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she’d moved a thrice of steps closer, although she still couldn’t shoot for fear the man would convulsively fire. “You’re absolutely right!” Ozzie tightened his grip on Avian’s collar and dragged him around in front of his body again. “I might as well just take him now. Since he’s been cooperative enough to jump into my hands.”

Suddenly, a marked look of consternation came over the man’s face, an expression Elena noted with unblinking interest. Unbeknownst to the Turk, Ozzie had just realized that he couldn’t activate the device with both hands occupied. He briefly pondered releasing the kid’s collar long enough to do so, but he really didn’t want to offer his hostage an opportunity to bolt, no matter how foolish the move would be on Wulfe’s part. His eyes sharpened on Elena’s face. “Put your gun on the ground,” he commanded in a hard voice. “Or I’ll shoot him.”

“Uh uh,” Elena refused easily with a coquettish tilt of her head at the idle threat. The man frowned as an element of perplexity came to his eyes, as though he found himself at a loss. Which was probably the case, Elena thought happily. Now the man just needed to screw up and give her the opening she needed. She fully expected that his next move would be to turn the gun on her despite the risk of losing the Wulfe kid from his grasp, and she was ready for it, tense and watchful as the seconds ticked by, her steady eyes locked on the man’s confused face.

Unexpectedly, a loud jangle abruptly disrupted the quietude of the Kalm night, and the jarring sound was immediately followed up by an angry voice. “What the hell is going on out here?!”

All three parties involved in the standoff tensed at the sound, but not one of them moved their eyes to look. Avian instantly recognized the clang of the bell as the one on the materia shop door, and the angry voice as Tiko’s. Throughout the entire ordeal, Avian had been holding his fear firmly at bay, just as he’d been keeping his muscles carefully still but for the surreptitious movement of his hand as he sought to gain a grip on his dragon dagger without alerting his captor. Despite the Turk’s careless words, he knew that she didn’t mean him to come to harm. Caitlin had assured him that the Turks meant to protect him if he wished. He had refused the offer, but he had come away from their emotionally charged conversation with the knowledge that he needn’t fear the Turks. Sensing now that he could trust her actions, he’d been certain to keep his troubled eyes focused on her face, watching for her move in case she gave them both an opportunity to act, but now he knew the situation had been radically altered with the interjection of Tiko on the scene. His heart, already beating wildly in his chest, leapt into his throat at the instant realization that the situation had just taken a turn for the worse, especially for him. The man in black proved his point when he abruptly backed around to partially face the new threat, dragging Avian stumbling along with him.

In that instant, Elena finally had her opening as the man in black impulsively took his eyes off hers long enough to identify the interloper, but before she could reposition her aim to account for the man’s new position, a dark figure hurtled from the shadows, the low growl just before the attack the only indication of the dog’s arrival on the scene.

Ozzie saw the dog only a second before the animal dove in to latch his sharp teeth around the meaty part of his calf. Ozzie cried out at the pain, a marked faintness taking him as the dog gnawed at his leg, angry snarls rising from deep in the canine’s throat. Desperately, Ozzie forced himself to keep his head. He well knew that his luck, which had seemed to be running somewhat in his favor, had just deserted him completely. He had run out of all options but for one. Retreat. With an enraged yell fueled by the intense pain in his leg, he forcefully threw Avian in Elena’s direction and whipped the gun down as he fumbled with clumsy fingers to activate the device.

Reacting instinctively, Elena jumped out of Avian’s stumbling trajectory, her eyes instantly back on target, along with the barrel of her gun. A brilliant explosion of white light illuminated the sleepy village in fleeting midday light as two guns discharged simultaneously. Only one shot reverberated around the confines of the sleepy village, the other silenced to a dull thump, unheard beneath the sharp yelp of pain. When Elena could next make out the scene around her, the man in the black hat had vanished and the shaggy brown dog lay motionless in the dim wash of light.

At the sight of the fallen canine, a curious lethargy seeped through her bones, and she might have stood in that spot all night if it were not for the anguished cry that rose from behind her. Her mind snapped back into focus, and she whirled to catch Avian Wulfe as he rushed past, but her desperate move to keep him close to her and the protection of her gun failed when he tore his arm from her fingers and staggered forward to fall to his knees beside the lifeless dog.

Elena had meant to keep Avian hidden back in the shadows, keenly aware that the Katana man might still be around. It wasn’t that she doubted Reno’s ability to take the warrior down. It was just that she had a healthy respect for the Katana man’s skills of evasion, a respect based on personal experience. Besides, a Turk should always assume the worst possible scenario and hope for the best.

Still cloaked in shadows herself, Elena turned her head to watch the shopkeeper approach, now that he’d apparently shaken off his shock at the sequence of events that his entrance on the scene had set into motion. Tiko knelt down beside Avian and the dog, dropping a shaking hand to the kid’s shoulder. She dismissively turned her attention to a more pressing matter, the growing number of people converging in the square below. The earlier gunshot had gone virtually unnoticed, but the second gunshot, along with the shouts and the snarling, had been more than enough to rouse the inebriated patrons from the bar as well as the residents of the houses around the village square. A low murmur had risen in the night as the inhabitants of the town asked each other what had happened, and the sounds of conversation swelled incrementally as more people arrived to join in and the queries spread far afield.

Quickly, Elena shoved her gun into her waistband and settled the hem of the denim jacket over the bulge. Striding into the light, she halted behind the huddled form of Avian Wulfe and bent to lay a hand on his other shoulder. “We’d better go,” she firmly suggested, her eyes on the fingers that absently stroked the dog’s blood splattered ear. She had no doubt that the dog was dead. The animal had that strange diminished look that came when life had slipped away, leaving a once vibrant body as empty as a discarded shoe, a quality she’d seen often enough to know.

“Get away…from me…” Avian choked out the anguished words. With a sharp jerk of his shoulders, he pulled away from both her and Tiko, bending to gather the limp dog into his arms. Cradling the deadweight of the heavy dog against his chest, he shakily stood and half-turned toward the materia shop, but before he managed to take a step, he abruptly turned back to face Elena. The Turk wisely held her tongue as she silently regarded the tear-streaked cheeks and baleful glare. “Go away,” he brusquely commanded through a voice tight with pain. “I don’t need your help.”

In wordless support, Tiko had stood when Avian did, and now he raised unforgiving eyes to Elena’s serene face. The shopkeeper didn’t really have any clue what had just happened in front of his shop, but he knew Avian’s dog was dead and that Avian appeared to find the blonde woman at fault. Pointedly, he put his back to her and took Avian’s elbow firmly in hand. “Come on, Avian. Let’s get out of here.” Helplessly lost in his grief, Avian unconsciously nodded, and he mindlessly followed as Tiko led him away.

Elena thought about pursuing the pair. She still had her mission to fulfill after all. The man in the black hat had fled, but the Katana Man might still be around. Still, she had to accept that Avian would not allow her anywhere near him, and he had Tiko to back up his refusal. All she could do now was to keep watch on the materia shop from here and hope like hell that Reno had taken care of the other one. On the other hand, with all the people around, she probably didn’t have to worry about the Katana Man making an attempt to approach.

Footsteps scuffed on the stairs behind her, and she instantly turned, every nerve in her body twanging in alarm as the dark shape of a tall, broad shouldered man loomed from the darkness at the head of the stairs. Instinctively, she slipped a hand behind her back, only to release the butt of her gun in relief when Rude stepped into the light with Caitlin right on his heels. Another man came up the stairs behind Rude and Caitlin, and Elena recognized him as a man that she had briefly chatted with in one of the shops earlier in the day. Looking around curiously, he noticed her, and his face brightened in instant recognition. Obliviously, he brushed past the tall Turk to halt in front of her, turning excited eyes to the front door of the materia shop to watch Tiko and Avian pass through. Once the door fell shut, his eyes shot back to her face. “Do you know what happened?” he asked her eagerly. She wrinkled her brow in confusion, and slowly shook her head. “No, I don’t,” she smoothly lied. “I came along after.”

“I heard the gunshot,” he told her happily. She nodded in agreement. “Yeah, me too.” At least that wasn’t a lie. The corner of her mouth tipped in amusement, and she abruptly turned on heel and walked away, leaving her new friend staring wide-eyed at the shop window so raptly he didn’t even notice her departure or the passage of the strangely matched couple that stealthily followed the tapping heels into the deeper shadows at the far end of the promenade.

Once Elena reached the end of the walkway, she wrapped her arms around her waist as a sudden shiver worked up her spine to her neck. Hunching her shoulders, she watched Caitlin and Rude silently approach, their faces ghostly in the gloom.

“What happened?” Rude demanded.

“I had a little altercation with the man in the black hat,” Elena told him softly. “Avian Wulfe got in on the act, I’m afraid. Although I do admit that if he hadn’t, I might not have been around to talk about it.”

Alarmed at Elena’s news, Caitlin stepped closer to peer into her shadowed face. What about Avian?” she asked anxiously. “Is he okay?”

“He’s just fine,” Elena reassured her. “He’s upset about the dog, but he’s unhurt.”

“The dog?” Caitlin forced the question past a throat suddenly gone dry. She’d heard the gunshot just like Rude, Elmyra, and everyone else in the small village had, and she’d learned in the short time she’d known him how much the dog meant to him.

“The dog is dead.” Elena told her in a flat voice. “The mutt attacked the hat guy, and he shot him just before he flashed out of here.”

Caitlin didn’t wait to hear anymore. She wheeled away; dodging around the hand that Rude threw out to stop her, easily eluding him to dart toward the materia shop at the other end. The big Turk strode after her, and Elena hurried to catch up. “Just let her go, Rude,” she called in a low voice. “She’s just going to the shop.”

Rude didn’t answer or bother to acknowledge her presence, walking quickly as Elena hurried alongside, finding herself hard pressed to keep up with his long strides. “Please stop Rude,” Elena pleaded. “I want to talk to you about Reno.”

Rude abruptly halted in his tracks. Not because of Elena’s reference regarding the Leader of the Turks, but because Caitlin had just slammed the shop door closed behind her, the loud bang punctuated by the clamorous jangle of the bell. His expressionless mouth thinned in irritation. Caitlin Shinra hadn’t changed a bit over the last decade. She’d been stubborn and willful then, and she remained the same now. She had forced him to leave the tower room in pursuit of her after the gunshot resonated in the night, and now she’d flown from his protection again. He could not effectively protect her if she would not follow his lead. Frowning slightly, he approached the entrance at a markedly slower pace than before, finally swiveling his head to look down at Elena’s troubled face as she walked easily beside him. “Where is Reno?” he demanded coolly.

“Well, that’s the thing, Rude. He hasn’t come back yet.” The urgency that had taken Elena’s mind filled her voice with anxiety. Now that her encounter with the man in the black hat was over, her thoughts had inevitably returned wholly to the matter of Reno and the Katana man. She knew Reno didn’t plan to get close to the man. He had no intention of granting the Katana Man the opportunity to exercise his superhuman agility against him in a face-to-face confrontation, but plans had a knack for going askew, as she’d already found out tonight. And as far as she was concerned, Reno had been gone too long. She now found herself plagued with the vision of the blade swinging toward her throat, the memory playing in her mind in an endless loop, except now she imagined Reno in her place.

She pinned pleading eyes on Rude’s stolid gaze. “ Shouldn’t we go look for him, Rude?”

The big Turk turned speculative eyes toward the dimly lit square that had fallen into an uneasy quietude as the majority of the people had quickly grown bored and gradually returned to earlier pursuits. In fact, he found it too quiet. If Reno had successfully carried out his self-assigned task, there would be some stir elsewhere, but as far as he could tell, Elena’s little encounter with the man in the black hat had been the only point of interest. Still, they were Turks, and each one of them had a job to do. He had to stay with Caitlin, and he would be forced to send Elena back to stay with Rachel. He suspected she would protest, but she would go.

The corners of his tightlipped mouth barely twitched as his dark eyes turned chilly on her expectant face. “Reno’s a big boy, Elena. He can take care of himself.”

His back pressed firmly to the brick wall just inside the alley entrance, Reno cautiously peered into the thick gloom and mentally replayed the layout of the alley in his mind even as he mentally chided himself for not making as careful an inventory of the details as he typically would have when he’d been in the alley with Elena earlier. The second story light had been extinguished, cloaking every inch of the alleyway in darkness and leaving him at a decided disadvantage as the Katana man stood patiently somewhere inside the narrow lane, hidden in deep shadow, while he knew his own movements would be silhouetted by the ambient glow of the streetlights in the square behind him if he should step away from the wall.

The Katana Man could have already made good his escape and vanished in a flash of blinding light just as his chewed up companion had done only moments before, leaving Elena and Avian Wulfe behind, unharmed. Reno had made sure of that with a quick glance around the corner. But the katana wielding warrior hadn’t left. He was still down there, waiting for him. Baiting him with his silent presence. Hoping to lure the Turk within range of the curving sweep of his sharp blade.

It was all so damned ridiculous really. He should have taken out the Katana Man long ago. A simple little chore. It was his own fault that he now found himself in this fix. First, he'd been fooling around when he should have been paying close attention, negligent of his duties while the Katana Man and his companion had been lurking inside the village for hours. More importantly, he’d failed miserably to bring Mr. Katana down with a long-range rifle shot, all because he’d hesitated to gawk around. Then after shadowing the Katana Man across the square in stealthy silence, looking for a clear shot and a clean getaway, he had again let opportunity slip from his fingers when the man in the black hat had fired his gun. That gunshot had echoed in the night and knocked him totally off task. He’d allowed the sight of the crumpled body on the pavement to throw him into a tailspin, an unforgivable lapse for a professional of his stature and expertise.

From where he’d been standing at the time, he couldn’t know that the man in the black hat’s target had been Elena, especially as she’d been standing partially in shadow, but in his bones he’d known. He’d actually run a few steps toward the stairs when Avian Wulfe had flown from the shadows to knock the man in black to the ground, and then he’d seen Elena rise to her feet, hale and healthy, her gun in her hand. In the meantime, all thought of Mr. Katana completely slipped his mind. If his target hadn’t been similarly engaged, he might well have lost his head in more ways than one.

At the stunned recognition of his mistake, he’d immediately looked around, only to find the Katana Man running around the far railing of the transit tower, as though he’d decided to join the fray to assist his friend who had already managed to regain his feet and take Avian Wulfe hostage. But even as he lifted his gun, the Katana Man had come to a halt again, as though he had decided to await the outcome of the current standoff to act. At that point, Reno had swept the gun around and attempted to aim the barrel at the head of Avian’s captor, but with a muttered curse, he’d drawn the pistol back. The chance of hitting Avian instead was too great.

As though he hadn’t already made enough mistakes that night, he decided to continue right on, unconsciously taking a couple of tentative steps in Elena's direction, before he snapped back to his senses. Immediately, he’d turned back to the Katana Man, only to find the warrior looking straight at him. In that instant, Reno knew he’d been made. The Turk had instinctively raised his gun, the pressing need to finish the job driving his actions. The Katana Man had then opted for escape, spinning away from the tower in a blur of motion to dash with mind-boggling speed into the nearest alley. Reluctantly, Reno had darted after him, knowing he had to trust Elena to handle her own situation. He knew she was more than capable. After all, she had a gun in her hand, and she was a Turk. It was only a matter of time before she would gain the upper hand. Still, he’d found it extremely difficult to turn his back on her just then.

Reno frowned irritably at the memory and rested his cheek against the wall, wishing for a cigarette as his thoughts churned in his head. He could just go. Concede the game. Await more favorable circumstances another day. That would be the practical route. But he’d already let too many opportunities slide by him that day. Besides, Reno, the Leader of the Turks was no coward. The Katana man silently taunted him from the darkness, and Reno didn’t mean to disappoint him. A chilly smile curved the Turk’s thin lips as he straightened away from the wall. Switching the gun to his left hand, he slowly withdrew the magrod from his back pocket, and holding it beside his leg, he extended it to full length with a sharp snap of his wrist. Then he pressed his thumb against the charge switch.

With his gun held upright beside his cheek and his magrod flattened against his leg to mute the soft hum of the full charge, Reno slid along the wall, his eyes stabbing into the darkness, his ears alert to the slightest sound. The Turk knew there was only one way he would survive the impending confrontation. He had to strike first, and he had to make that strike count. That meant he had to determine the exact position of the man before he made his move, because an attack with either gun or magrod would reveal his own location.

The moments stretched endlessly as Reno inched his way deeper into the alley. A mournful tune touched his ears, the notes from the distant piano he’d heard earlier as he’d held Elena in his arms now turned slow and somber. A fitting accompaniment, perhaps. Only time would tell the tale.

A door squeaked open somewhere close by, and Reno froze in place as a wash of illumination from the open doorway painted a dim path across the alley to splash the far wall with soft golden light. At that point, he discovered that he’d come to a narrow wooden wall that formed one end of a small storage lean-to. Fortunately, the shed prevented the light from revealing his position. Unfortunately, he’d make of himself a visible target when he had to go around it. A cat squalled in protest, and the door slammed into the jamb, instantly returning the alleyway to darkness.

Reno chose that moment to move, counting on the few seconds it would take his opponent’s eyes to readjust to darkness, hoping he would remain unseen. His hopes were in vain. As he darted around the front of the lean-to shed and rounded the other side, an object thunked into the wooden wall mere inches from his head, in the exact place his head would have been only a second later. Instantly, he dropped to the ground and scrambled on around the shed on hands and knees as a second object thwacked into the wall, well above his head this time. The Katana man was guessing.

Reno scooted back against the wall on his butt and again stared into the darkness at the end of the alley as he tried to decide his next move. He remembered seeing a group of metal trashcans several feet further down on the opposite wall. He pondered the advisability of making a dash for them as he again planted his back to the wall and slid slowly to a stand. He’d almost convinced himself to do exactly that when the cat that had been ejected from the doorway only moments before squalled again. In pain, this time. Reno instantly raised his gun in the direction of the sound and would have fired instantly, but the startling sound of an alarm stayed his finger on the trigger, but only momentarily. He jerked down on the trigger, but even as he fired, the now familiar blinding flash exploded in the narrow alleyway and sliced painfully into his eyes.

He gaped into a darkness transformed to blackest night once the aftereffects of the assault on his eyes had passed. Suddenly, his redheaded temper got the better of him as anger swelled in his chest at the Katana man’s timely escape. Slamming his mouth closed, he impulsively spun away from the wall to give the lean-to shed a resounding and immensely satisfying kick. Unfortunately, the only damage he managed to inflict was to his own foot, and he next found himself hopping on one foot with the other cradled in a hand as he cursed with a vehemence that lacked nothing in content despite the repressed volume. Eventually, the throbbing subsided, and he set his foot to the ground at the same time it occurred to him that he could still hear the alarm which he’d associated with the Katana man, a sound that had seemed loud in the tense silence of the stalk but didn’t seem so strident now that other matters occupied him. The beckoning sound still chirped insistently from the corner at the end of the alleyway. From the very corner where he’d hidden his bag behind a row of trash cans, in fact.

Still cursing the elusive Katana man as well as his own endless slate of stupid errors, he snatched up his magrod from the ground at his feet and swiftly made his way to the exact place, with a rather pronounced limp, to drag the black bag from behind the cans. Turning around to plant his butt on one of the can lids, he laid the magrod aside and unzipped the side pocket to peer down at the red light that flashed from deep inside. Dragging out the commpad, he dropped the bag at his feet and lifted the lid. The alarm instantly stopped, and Reno stared in bemusement at the whimsical image on the illuminated monitor screen of the computer that had apparently booted itself up.

The animated cartoon figure of Cait Sith jumped up and down on the screen, waving his arms about his head in agitation. The red and black exclamation marks that emanated from his mouth and filled the space around him indicated a high level of excitement on the cat’s part. With a quick glance around him to ensure he’d drawn no attention despite the alarm and the assault on the shed, Reno punched the enter key. The comical cat whipped a giant envelope from out of thin air, and the envelope unfolded into a piece of paper that expanded across the screen to obliterate the image of the cat. Reno bent his head to read.



As per your request, I’ve programmed Cait to alert you directly, following a hierarchy of alert levels from 3 to 1. This alert level has activated specifically because Cait Sith has been unable to contact my computer or me for a period of 9 hours, suggesting serious problems on my end. I would appreciate it if you would investigate the matter ASAP please.


Press to acknowledge message receipt.

Reno cocked his head to the side in bemusement. “Well Reeve, I’ll just give Tseng the message the moment I see him…” Reno muttered to himself and the loudly purring cat that twined around his ankles, his affection for strangers apparently undeterred by the Katana man’s abuse. With a jab of a finger, he punched the enter key. The black letters that comprised the text exploded in a zillion tiny particles that rearranged into the form of Cait Sith. The cat touched a mitten to his crown as he bowed his head, apparently in farewell, as evidenced in the next instant by the computer’s automatic shutdown.

Reno stared at the black screen in thought. Reno knew the message had been addressed to Tseng only by virtue of the fact that Reeve had probably written the program when Cait Sith had first been put into service for the company months ago. Tseng had since bequeathed his commpad and all other auspices of his office to him. He was the Leader of the Turks now, and this problem was his to handle. And handle it, he would. Besides, he knew he wouldn’t have the option of choice when Caitlin knew.

Reno closed the lid on the computer and bent to return it to the bag. The purring cat seized the opportunity to rub his whiskered face against the Turk’s wrists as he worked the slimline computer into its pocket in the side. Reno succeeded despite his inability to see and the feline interference. Deftly, he removed the cat from the bag with one hand and set him aside. “Thanks for the heads up, pal,” he told the cat as he zipped up the bag and stood. “…But from here on out, I work alone.”

The cat’s purr continued undiminished as the creature returned his attention to Reno’s ankles. Reno threw the bag onto his shoulder and picking up the magrod in one hand, he tossed a trash can lid off with the other. Turning his head at the fruity odor that assailed his nostrils, he picked up the cat by the scruff of the neck and deposited him on the top of the pungent heap of trash in the can. “Enjoy friend.”

Reno lifted his eyes to the empty square beyond the alley entrance as he calculated the time required to return to Midgar. He knew the alert had not been activated by mere computer malfunction. For whatever reason, Cait Sith had lost his connection to Reeve’s computer, an event that would have triggered an attempt on the electronic cat’s part to contact through the VR equipment, an attempt that had obviously failed as well. Nine hours. A lot could have happened in nine hours. Especially in that incendiary situation. He had to assume the worst, and he knew Caitlin would too. He also knew that she would insist on returning right into the heart of the mess. Back into that dangerous hellhole. A place that she didn’t belong and one that he didn’t care to revisit in this lifetime. Or any other, for that matter. And he would be the one to take her. He would not send Rude or Elena to do it and he would not deny her. He simply didn’t have it in him. So he would tell her about the message. Reno started walking. He would tell her just as soon as he appropriated the Katana man’s knives from the lean-to shed where he’d carelessly left them. And just as soon as he retrieved his rifle from the top of the barrier wall. Then he would find her and inform her that her beloved Reeve was in trouble. A chilly smile touched his lips. The Caitlin Shinra Roller Coaster ride was about to get wild.

“Avian…please…” Caitlin called plaintively through the locked door. “…I just want to talk to you…” This time, Avian didn’t even bother to respond. Not with an angry “leave me alone” or a weary “go away”. He’d probably tired of her endless requests for entry and insistent raps on the wooden door, and he’d finally determined that his ineffective words weren’t worth the waste of his breath. Or maybe he just didn’t care anymore. She wished that she could feel the same. With a weary sigh, she let her forehead fall against the door with a soft thump.

“Forget about him, Caitlin,” Rude said brusquely. “He doesn’t want to talk to you.”

She turned her head against the door to look up into his face. He’d been so quiet that she’d almost forgotten he was standing there beside her, lounging casually against the wall by the door with crossed arms. She knew he was right. Avian Wulfe had probably had more than enough of Shinra and the Turks. She could hardly blame him. She shook her head sadly. “I can’t…”

Rude abruptly dropped his arms and shoved away from the wall. She lifted her head from the door and watched curiously as he dipped a hand into his trousers pocket to produce a pocketknife that appeared to possess a host of gadgets, one of which turned out to be a door pick when he flipped it out of its slot. “Please move aside,” he said firmly. She half-heartedly protested with a hesitant shake of her head. She couldn’t just barge in uninvited…unwanted…

Rude gazed down at her with implacable brown eyes and silently waited. Finally, she relented and stepped aside, releasing the doorknob to give him access to the lock. She wasn’t happy about the means, but Rude could swiftly give her the entry she wanted. He raised an eyebrow in question, and she nodded her head.

Within seconds, Rude had the door unlocked, and with no sound beyond the quiet click of the latch releasing. He turned the knob and shoved the door open far enough so he could see into the room. Satisfied that no danger awaited Caitlin inside, he stepped aside to let her pass. She looked at him uncertainly, and he urged her in with a jerk of his chin.

With a hand on the doorframe, she uneasily walked through and paused just past the threshold at sight of Avian Wulfe, huddled cross-legged on the floor with his head bent low, tangled sandy locks hanging in his face as he stared down at the limp dog that lay across his lap.

“Will you talk to me, Avian?” she asked him softly. He didn’t answer her or look at her, but he did nod, just a bare movement of his head to express his reluctant concession. Quietly, she shut the door behind her and turned the latch.

Reno saw her first as he crossed the square to the front door of the tower house. She caught his eye easily, a vision of ethereal beauty as she paced back and forth beneath the golden halo of light cast from the streetlight, one expensively manicured fingernail caught between her teeth as she walked. His limp suddenly returned, his boot making a scuffing noise against the stone tiles. She turned anxious eyes his way and saw him then, not so much because she’d heard him, but because she’d looked that way for a sign of him countless times with no success. Even now that he’d actually appeared from the shadows that shrouded the area around the power transit station, she thought her eyes were deceiving her. She stared in wide-eyed disbelief, until she noticed the hitch in his gait, and alarm lent her feet wings as she rushed to him, her arms lifting as though she might throw her arms around him, or maybe give him a punch or two. He hoped for the former, as he well knew Elena could hit damned hard. A tightlipped smile curved his mouth as they came together, halting mere inches apart to face each other. Elena gazed up into his shadowed face with hungry eyes for a long moment, and then she abruptly turned her eyes away and folded her arms over her chest as though a cold wind had suddenly blown through the square and chilled her.

“Are you hurt, Reno?” she inquired of the toes of his boots.

He shrugged nonchalantly, deciding at that moment that the toes he’d bruised from kicking the wall probably wouldn’t evoke that much sympathy from her. “Nah, not really,” he idly conceded. “You?” He watched the ends of her blonde hair whisper across one cheek as she shook her head.

“Did you get him, Reno?” she asked with a little hitch in her words, as though she’d momentarily run out of breath.

Reno squared his shoulders at the question. “No,” he replied curtly. He didn’t care to discuss the matter with her. Nor did he have time. Besides, he’d failed completely in his mission, and although he would mentally review his mistakes later, in excruciating detail, especially his newly developed tendency to distraction, he didn’t want to think about it just then. He had more pressing matters to attend to anyway. “Where’s Caitlin?”

Elena frowned at the change in the subject as well as in his tone, but she followed his lead, her eyes chilling as she again raised them to his face. She jerked her chin toward the materia shop. “She’s talking to Avian Wulfe, and Rude is with her,” she replied in a voice coated with ice.

“And the kid?” Reno withdrew his cigarette case from his pocket and removed a cigarette.

“Sleeping upstairs in the tower room.”

“Go get her,” Reno commanded coolly. He clicked his lighter and lifted the flame to his cigarette, the jittering light giving his face a saturnine quality.

“What if that woman, Elmyra, won’t let me?”

The corner of Reno’s mouth lifted as he took a drag off his cigarette. “Would that be a problem, Elena?”

Her chin lifted in response, along with one sculptured eyebrow. “Nope.”

“Didn’t think so. Get it done.” He abruptly turned on heel and put his back to her, all hint of his previous limp gone as he sauntered away. “Be outside the materia shop in five,” he spoke over his shoulder as he departed, the smoke from his cigarette trailing behind. “We’re leaving.”

Elena lifted her icy hazel eyes from her perusal of Reno’s smoothly departing feet to drill twin holes into his back. “Yes, Sir,” she said harshly as her temper flared to light her eyes with glittering heat. ...Conceited jerk... she silently added. She couldn’t imagine now why she’d ever wanted to kiss him, even for a second, and she was sorry that she’d wasted one second worrying about him. Rude was right. Reno could indeed take care of himself. From now on. She didn’t plan to worry about him another minute. Ever again. With a haughty toss of her blond head, she turned for the door to the tower house. She had five minutes to get the kid and be at the materia shop. She would do it in three.

Caitlin stopped at the edge of the rug on which Avian sat with the obviously dead dog draped across his knees. She watched sorrowfully as he worried one silky ear between two fingers. “I’m sorry about your dog, Avian,” Caitlin apologized in a heavy voice. He simply nodded, his face still hidden by his bent head and hanging hair.

Caitlin lowered herself to the floor to sit across from him. Silently, she watched and waited for a cue, and eventually her patience was rewarded when Avian absently shook his head. “Why did he…do it?” he finally asked her in a strangled voice.

“I don’t know, Avian,” she replied slowly, mentally castigating herself at her sudden loss for words or explanations.

“He’s never done anything like that before…” Avian continued in a slightly steadier voice, as though actually talking about Soldier gave him strength.

Caitlin realized then that he was talking about the dog. “What did he do, Avian?”

“He tried…he tried…to…save me…”

Caitlin tentatively stretched out her fingers to touch the back of the large hand buried in the dog’s fur. “He did save you, Avian. He did it because he loved you. You can take comfort in that.”

Avian shook his head, slowly at first, and then more vehemently. “No. No! I don’t want comfort! I want him back!” He suddenly turned his hand to wrap desperate fingers tightly around hers, and his head lifted to bring his streaked face into her view. Her troubled eyes were inexorably drawn into the tear-filled amber eyes full of anger and pain. “Do you understand, Caitlin? I just want him back! I don’t want comfort! I want him back!” His voice finally cracked beneath the strain of his anguish

Tears starting in her own eyes, Caitlin opened her mouth to tell him that she understood, that she would give him his dog back if she could, that she would make his pain go away if she knew how, even though she couldn’t and she didn’t, but before she could begin to formulate just the right words to say a curious numbness seeped into her mind, along with a warm buzz that rose at the back of her cranium, first like the sound of a beehive high in a tree above her head, but all too soon more like the angry whine of a lumber mill buzz saw. A deafening sound, but not one that met her ear, a sound voraciously consumptive of all independent thought.

Distantly, she noted the fire that ignited the golden eyes with molten flame, the dance of iridescent light that swirled into the unfilled spaces in her whirling thoughts, the electrifying energy that pulsed through her fingers, into them and through them, and the fingers that curled against the dog’s lifeless head, all images that barely registered in her mind through eyes locked wide open, unblinking and unseeing. All physical sense had left her, and she experienced a curious feeling of detachment, a lightness of being, as though she viewed the entire scene from some place outside her body.

A door slammed somewhere behind her, and somewhere in her mind. Her eyes snapped open as the strange connection broke. With a gasp, she jerked her hand free from fingers now gone limp, her wide azure eyes slamming into amber ones that were now filled with fear and bewilderment, completely devoid of the light she must have imagined. Was she losing her mind again? Was the insanity returning?


Eyes still wild as her thoughts raced for an explanation, any explanation that didn’t involve the degeneration of her mind, an event she’d always feared, she jerked her head around to stare in confusion at the redheaded man that stood above her with knowing green eyes watchful on her stricken face. She knew at that instant that he knew. That man knew. He knew she was losing her mind.

Caitlin? Did you hear me? We have to go to Midgar,” Reno repeated the words that had yet to reach her mind. “Your old man’s in trouble.”

“What?” she asked in total incomprehension.

“Reeve’s gone out of contact, Caitlin,” he patiently explained. “Nine hours ago.”

Then the meaning of his words broke through her stunned daze, and she jumped to her feet as horror crystallized her thoughts and sent a mad rush of adrenaline through her bloodstream, her fear driving keen shards of ice through her bloodstream. “Reno!” she gasped his name as she tried to retrieve the breath snatched from her lungs by his words. “What’s happened?”

“I don’t know. I got an automatic alert. Could be just a technical glitch. But honestly, I doubt it.”

Caitlin simply stared at him as all the possibilities her mind could conjure up suddenly started a race through her mind. Nine hours was a long time. Whatever had happened to Reeve…

She shot out a hand to snatch a handful of Reno’s shirt into frantic fingers. “We have to go, Reno!” she exclaimed. He nodded his agreement. “We have to go now!”

“We are going now, Caitlin,” he reassured her coolly as he peered steadily into her stunned eyes. “We’ll take care of it. Don’t worry about that.”

“We have to help Reeve,” she insisted as though she needed to make him understand.

“We will help Reeve, Caitlin,” he replied curtly.

“But what if it’s…too late?” she asked him in a strained whisper.

“Don’t jump to unsupported conclusions, Ms. Shinra,” he admonished her.

His cool voice finally steadied her, and her eyes narrowed on his face. “Don’t call me that, Reno.”

“Okay, Caitlin,” he easily agreed. “We should go now.”

A soft whine came from behind her, and her eyes flew wide on Reno’s face. He met the awestruck eyes with the full brunt of his knowledge. That knowledge she’d misinterpreted moments before. Her brain struggling in a heavy swell of denial, she released Reno’s shirt and slowly turned. His tail thumping madly, Soldier wriggled in his master’s arms as he struggled to lick the stricken face that must look like her own, a face that seemed caught somewhere between joy and trepidation.

“And Mr. Wulfe is going too,” Reno informed her with a tone that defied argument.

She couldn’t find the words to argue with Reno, and she wouldn’t have if she could. She wasn’t sure what had just happened here, but she knew she wasn’t responsible for this miracle. Not wholly anyway. Avian looked up into her azure gaze with eyes full of fear and confusion, obviously scrambling for a firm foundation of his own, even as he hugged the dog to him in disbelieving desperation. She knew just how he felt.

“What happened here, Avian?” she asked him softly.

He shook his head in wonder. “I…don’t know.”

A gentle smile touched her mouth. “You got your dog back.”

He numbly nodded his head.

Then she offered him a choice, even though she could not give him a choice in the end. “Will you come with us, Avian?”

Avian knew when he looked at her that he didn’t have any choice. He saw it in her eyes. He heard it in the Turk’s voice. He knew it in his heart. There were forces at work he could hardly comprehend, and people with unworldly powers after him for reasons he didn’t understand. He simply nodded his agreement, and accepted Caitlin Shinra’s relieved smile as his reward.

Yuffie coiled her rope as she crossed the dark ground toward the recognizable shape of the sleeping chocobo, the bird’s huddled bulk darkly visible in the dim starlight. Tucking her rope away in her bag, she removed the penlight from between her teeth and flipped it on to reveal the sprawled pilot, his long legs stretched out before him as he leaned against the dozing chocobo, his head pillowed on her soft side, his silver hair straggling across a backdrop of ocean blue feathers. She smirked down into his serene face. He seemed entirely too relaxed about her absence, especially after the fuss he’d made.

She dragged in a huge breath of fresh night air, a most welcome change from the claustrophobic tangle and nauseating stench of the wreckage she’d just crawled, clambered, and squeezed through, for more hours than she wanted to remember. She turned the light back onto the serene face of Derrick Heidegger. After a protracted study, she decided she liked him better with his blue eyes open. She lifted her foot and poked him in the ribs with the toe of her sneaker. He stirred uneasily and turned his cheek against the warm feathers beneath as an indistinguishable word whispered from his parted lips.

She drew in a deep breath and bent to put her face near his ear. “HEY YOU!” she screeched into his ear. The auditory assault had the desired effect. Derry woke with a wild start, his arms and legs flying wide as he struggled to sit up, his blue eyes staring into the soft glow of the penlight in total disorientation. He finally managed to sit up when one flailing arm found purchase, and he shoved hard against the bird’s yielding side. The chocobo leisurely untucked her head from her wing and blinked at him with sleepy eyes.

Yuffie covered her mouth to choke off her laughter, but she snorted unbecomingly through her nose instead, especially when she noticed that only one blue eye blinked into her light in confusion as the other had been hidden by his wildly disarranged hair. He must have been having a restless nap.

Derry held up a hand to block the glare of light in his face. “Is that you, Yuffie?” he asked cautiously. But even as he asked the question he knew it had to be her. No one else would pull such an obnoxious trick on him and stay around to laugh about it. He jumped to his feet and grabbed her slim shoulders in his hands. “It is you!” he exclaimed happily. “I sure am glad to see you! I was worried!”

To her utter surprise, she felt herself blushing, a reaction she hadn’t experienced in a long while, and she silently thanked her stars that her face was cloaked in darkness. Defensively, she jerked her shoulders against his light grasp, and he drew his hands away to tuck them in his pockets. She took a deliberate step back, and he cocked his head in inquisitive bemusement. “Yeah, I could see that,” she remarked coolly. “You looked real worried. Between the ground shaking snores."

He smiled beatifically at her. “I don’t snore.”

“How would you know?” she asked him sarcastically.

“I’ve had no complaints…” he said with a slight frown as he silently acknowledged that he couldn’t know.

“Well, you do talk in your sleep,” Yuffie amended. “What was her name again?”

Derry’s frown deepened. “Well…I don’t know…I was dreaming about you…”

“You…were?” The admission took Yuffie totally by surprise, and she forgot to keep up her haughty demeanor. Helpless to stop herself, the question slipped off her lips. “What were you dreaming about me?” she asked in a soft voice he wasn’t accustomed to hearing from her.

A fleeting smile passed across his mouth. “I dreamed you were trying to run me down with Loki.”

“Oh,” Yuffie sniffed in disappointment. She lifted her shoulder in a dismissive shrug and clicked the penlight off. She didn’t want to look at his face anymore. “I hope she left toe prints all over your face.”

“Hmm…probably would have, if you hadn’t woke me up,” he offered helpfully.

Yuffie stuffed the light into the pocket of her shorts and brushed past him to approach the sleepy chocobo. “I had to, Heidegger. You were sleeping on my bird, and I have to go. In fact, I’ve already spent too much time listening to you flap your gums.”

At her brusque words, Derry remembered why she’d risked her neck to climb into the wreckage in the first place. His face turned serious as he watched her try to coax the drowsy bird to her clawed feet. “What did you find out, Yuffie?”

“There are a lot of people trapped in there,” she informed him gravely. “…And I don’t think they can stay there much longer.”

Derry nodded into the darkness. He immediately grasped the implications. “Guess we better tell Captain Highwind then.”

“Gee, why didn’t I think of that,” she retorted sarcastically as she shoved two hands into the bird’s side in an attempt to budge her. Derry pulled his hands from his pockets and walked past her to gather the reins from the ground. “I’ll drive.” He clucked his tongue at the stubborn bird, and she rose reluctantly to her feet.

“You can’t drive,” Yuffie snapped at him. “You don’t know how.”

Disregarding her statement, he stepped into the stirrup and easily swung into the saddle. “I’ve had a lot of time to practice,” he explained as he offered her his hand. She glared at the offensive appendage in disdain, although he couldn’t appreciate the clarity of her expression in the darkness. “It’s not that easy,” she argued coldly. “You’ll get us killed.”

“I’m still alive,” he replied reasonably. “Thought we were in a hurry.”

She clamped her mouth shut against the derogatory imprecation that popped into her mind, and snatching his hand into hers, she planted her foot atop his and vaulted onto the chocobo’s back behind him with an ease he found amazing.

“Are you sure you can do this?” she asked him with veiled concern as she reluctantly slipped her small hands around his waist.

He grinned into the night. “Sure, it’s only flying, right? And she’s just a bird.”

Andy hadn’t run far through Sector Two before he realized that the situation had turned ugly. Everywhere he looked, the troops were either guarding large groups of people huddled together on the ground or they were herding them into groups. Angry shouting filled the air, along with the distant chatter of automatic weapon fire.

He’d been considering the idea of shedding the uniform for civilian clothes, but he realized that would be the worst move he could make under the circumstances. He would only wind up on the ground sitting beneath the barrel of several rifles. Besides, if he was going to help Mr. Alexander he needed more information, and his uniform would help him get that.

He slowed to a brisk walk and tried to look like a soldier with somewhere to go. He respectfully saluted every officer he passed, and never lifted his eyes any higher than their nose. He feared that if he met their eyes, they might divine his real objective. But then, he wasn’t even sure what that might be. He didn’t even know where he was going or when he might know. He acknowledged that he couldn’t know, without a starting point.

He came to a stop and looked around, picking out two privates standing guard over a small group of people near the military mess tent. He strolled over as though he planned to pass them to enter the tent, but at the last minute decided to stop and talk to them. He shot a glance at their nametags. “What’s going on here, Chip?” he asked the taller one with a wave of a hand toward the detainees.

The soldier raised his eyebrows in astonishment. “Where you been, man? Shit’s been going down for hours.”

“I’ve been off duty. Sleeping. Just thought I’d grab a bite and then I saw all this.”

“Well, Gellner’s taking precautions. Rounding up the people before they get out of hand.”

“Gellner?” Andy’s stomach started a slow burn.

“Yeah, General Gellner…”

“When I went to sleep, General Sand was in charge.”

“Sand’s under arrest. I heard he’s going to be executed in front of a firing squad in the morning, but who knows. I’ve been hearing all kinds of stuff.”

“Mr. Alexander ordered Sand’s arrest?” Andy kept his voice carefully neutral despite the fact that he wanted to take the soldier and shake the information out of him.

“Alexander? Hell, no. They’ve got him too. Word just came down. They captured him in the sewers not even an hour ago.” The soldier called Chip narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “You have been asleep for a long while.”

“Yeah, I was tired,” Andy explained. “Crashed for over nine hours.”

“How’d you get nine hours, you lucky dog?”

“I pulled twenty-four before that, so the commander let me go early.”

Andy looked around as he tried to decide what to do. Now that Mr. Alexander was in custody, he wouldn’t be able to help him. He’d be too heavily guarded. Andy didn’t have a hope in hell of breaking him out. Not alone. And he didn’t know a soul he could trust to help him. Cloud Strife was gone. The Turks were gone. Caitlin was gone. And out of those, the only one he really trusted was Cloud. The Turks might be behind this whole business for that matter.

He brought his curious gaze back to Chip. “So who’s in charge now?”

“Ah man, you don’t even want to know,” Chip warned in a loud hiss.

“Yes, I do,” Andy replied succinctly. “Is it Gellner?” Maybe he’d gathered some like-minded people and staged an overthrow in revenge for his demotion.

Chip visibly shuddered and turned away. It was the other soldier who answered him.

“They’re trying to keep it quiet right now, but too many people know,” Cory informed him in a subdued voice. “The rumors are spreading.”

Andy threw up his hands. “Well…who?”

Cory took a step closer to whisper beneath his breath. “Scarlett.”

Andy knew his shock showed in his eyes, because he felt it all the way to his bones. “But I thought she was…”

“Ssssshhhhh!” both the soldiers hissed at him in unison.

Andy lowered his voice and tried again in a whisper of his own. “I thought she was dead.”

“Well, she’s not,” Chip spoke up again. “I had the displeasure of seeing her.”

“It’s hard to believe it could be her…” Andy spoke his thoughts aloud.

“Well, see for yourself,” Cory told him. “There she comes. You tell us if it’s Scarlett or not.”

Andy didn’t need any further prompting. He whirled around and easily found the procession swiftly moving through the Sector. A dozen soldiers marched in a tight formation with a woman that could only be Scarlett in the lead, stalking along in her trademark red dress and high heel shoes. His heart dove into his boots. If Scarlett had taken over, he suspected they’d all be doomed.

“It is Scarlett,” he said morosely.

“Told ya.” Chip said triumphantly. “And just like I said, they got Alexander.”

“What?” Andy’s eyes darted to the tightly formed group of soldiers. He’d been so preoccupied in identifying Scarlett, he hadn’t even thought to make an attempt to see the person the soldiers had surrounded, even though he would have known if he’d thought about it at all. The formation had been set up to hide Mr. Alexander from the crowd, and the casual observer would probably not see him. Andy Coakley, however, was no idle passerby, and he worked hard to spot the man between the bodies of the soldiers Now that he was looking, he managed to catch a partial glimpse of two men walking hidden inside the human enclosure. Mr. Alexander and Mr. Cornell.

At just that moment, Scarlett brought the entire entourage to a halt with a wave of her hand, not even twenty feet from where he stood, apparently to talk to an officer. It was then, that Andy recognized Gellner. He hadn’t even realized he was in the area, a dangerous mistake, as the officer would easily recognize him. He hoped like hell that Gellner wouldn’t look his way. He shrank back a couple of steps to put him more in line with the two soldiers. He wrapped a hand around his rifle strap and tried to look like he belonged there even as his eyes drifted inexorably back to try for a better look at the man held captive by the soldiers.

To his pleasant surprise, he found the soldiers had relaxed their formation while Scarlett had her attention centered elsewhere. A couple of them had stepped around to talk to each other and left a narrow gap through which he could clearly see Reeve Alexander’s bent head. A dark gash marked the executive’s cheek, and anger tightened Andy’s throat at sight of the abuse. His hand tightened around his rifle strap as he wondered how far he would get if he launched a one-man assault.

As though he sensed the unwavering gaze on his face, Reeve suddenly raised his eyes and swiveled his head to look in his direction. Andy pasted an encouraging smile on his face. Reeve absently stared at him for a couple of seconds before recognition narrowed the executive’s gaze.

Andy held up a hand to indicate his feeling of helplessness, and Reeve just barely nodded. Deliberately, the Shinra executive raised a finger to his ear, and then casually traced his cheek to his mouth as he tipped his head back to stare up into the dark depths above. Andy’s brows knitted in confusion. He knew the man had just given him a signal, but he didn’t know what it meant. He stared hard into the man’s intent eyes as he tried to work it out. The first part was easy. Ear…hear. Mouth…speak. Obviously, Mr. Alexander wanted him to communicate his situation to someone. But who? He tipped his head back just as the executive had done, and peered up into the darkness.

“What are you lookin’ at?” Chip suddenly asked him.

“Just lookin’,” he replied absently as his forehead furrowed in concentration.

“Well, as hard as you’re starin’ you’d think Rena Berron was dancin’ up there in her birthday suit.”

A hint of a smile touched Andy’s lips at Chip’s mention of the sultry actress as he continued to search the darkness for a clue.

“That’s unlikely, Chip,” Cory informed his taller companion in his quiet voice. “I read Ms. Baron left for Costa del Sol at the first reports that the meteor would hit Midgar.”

Chip rounded on Cory in despair. “It was a joke, Cory. She couldn’t be up there anyway. Nobody could. It’s…dead air. Shit, it even kills the radios.”

“Well, those Shinra choppers used to fly up there all the time,” Cory argued. “So there could be somebody up there.”

“Sure…Cory….” Chip rolled his eyes.

Andy lowered his eyes to Cory’s face in speculation. Could Mr. Alexander have meant the Turks? Did he want him to contact the Turks? But the Turks had gone to Kalm, as far as he knew, and he couldn’t contact them with a radio. All the transmitting towers on top of the plates had been destroyed. Mr. Alexander had that sophisticated satellite wireless connection thingy in that little computer of his, but he could hardly pass it over to him. If he even had it anymore. The computer had probably wound up in Scarlett’s greedy hands. How, then, was he supposed to contact anyone? And then it finally hit him. Zipped right into his head as though someone had shot him with an arrow. Mr. Alexander had actually done most of his communicating with the equipment in the crate. Andy didn’t really know how it all worked except that there was some device out there somewhere that he talked to his friends through. And they talked back. And he knew right where the crate was. Or had been. He’d shoved it back into the cabinet himself. In the conference room at the back of the former pub. He smiled at the realization that he’d figured it out. Mr. Alexander hadn’t meant up there. He’d meant out there.

Excited that he’d reached the probable solution, Andy sought out Mr. Alexander’s face again, just to give him the nod that he understood, but the soldiers had again closed ranks, closing the executive off from his view. Mainly because Scarlett had finished her conversation with Gellner and was walking back toward them, most likely with the intention of marching on. Gellner himself had headed in the direction of the mess tent and would pass right by him. He could not be seen by that man. Gellner would probably have him shot on sight.

Andy executed a smart about face and strode away, careful to keep his back to the approaching Gellner, but once he knew he was out of sight, he threw all caution to the wind and ran, oblivious to the looks he drew. He had one goal, and he planned to accomplish that goal quickly. Sector Three was his destination, and no one could stop him before he got there. He just hoped the crate would be right where he’d left it. After that, he’d just have to wing it.

Cid leaned most of his weight against the staff of his Venus Gospel as he took a deep drag on his last cigarette and watched the headlights of the bulldozer as it rumbled around from the other side of the greatly diminished pile of wreckage. He didn’t hear the heavy tread of the footsteps of the man walking up behind him and didn’t realize he’d stopped at his elbow until he spoke.

“Looks like you’re makin’ headway,” Barrett remarked, his exhaustion evident in his deep voice.

Several seconds elapsed before the big man’s words sank into his weary, preoccupied brain, but they finally registered, and he swiveled his head to look into Barrett’s haggard face. He wondered if he looked as old and wrung out as Barrett did. Cid released the smoke he’d held in his lungs. “Yeah, going smoother than I thought it would,” he replied slowly. “So far. Still a long haul though.”

“Well, the camp’s set up.” Barrett scrubbed a hand through his beard. “Those Shinras are more efficient than I expected. Red inspired them I guess. Food won’t last long though. Probably better go back to Junon and get another load. Medics say they’ll need more medical supplies too.”

Cid narrowed his eyes in thought. “Yeah, we could move faster if we had more hands too,” he mused aloud. “Could send Heidegger in the morning.”

“What did he find out anyway?” Barrett asked curiously.

“About what?”

“Sector Five.”

Cid’s eyes flew wide, and he choked on an inhalation of smoke.

Concerned, Barrett slapped him on the back, an act that set off a fit of coughing.

“You should really quit those things you know,” Barrett remarked as he peered into the beleaguered man’s watery eyes.

The coughing fit finally ended, and Cid pointed the cigarette at him as he glared at him through his tears. “Don’t start with me,” he growled hoarsely. He threw the cigarette down in disgust and ground it to pulp beneath his heel.

“Don’t start with what?” Nanaki asked curiously as he padded up to sit on Cid’s other side.

“Nothing,” Cid barked. “Don’t have time for that.”

“For what?” Nanaki felt completely lost.

Cid’s eyes turned rueful. “Derry and Yuffie. I forgot about them. Been so busy and there was that snag with the crane and…”

Barrett’s brown eyes filled with alarm. “What do you mean you forgot?! Are you sayin’ you haven’t seen them?!”

Cid strode past Barrett to stare off into the darkness past the area illuminated by the bright site lights. “Maybe they went to the mess tent. Did you see them?”

“Well, I haven’t been there…” the big man replied slowly.

“Well, why doncha go look, an’ I’ll check the planes.”

“They aren’t there, Cid,” Barrett informed him grimly. “I’m pretty sure that Heidegger kid would’ve told ya the second they got back. And it’s late. We better start lookin’ out there.” He jerked his chin in the general direction of Sector Five.

“I’ll go look,” Nanaki told them, one worried eye staring intently into the distance. “I can track them, and I can get there faster.”

Cid nodded curtly. “Better get goin’ then. I’ll get some gear, and I’ll head that way.”

Nanaki didn’t waste time in further conversation, springing from his haunches to launch himself across the blackened earth in an out all run. The two men watched him uneasily until his dark form merged with the night-shrouded landscape.

Cid finally stirred from his frozen stance and lifted the Venus Gospel to lean the staff against his shoulder. “I‘m gonna get a light an’ head out. It’s gonna take time to walk it.” He made a mental note to put motorcycles on Heidegger’s Junon shopping list. The one he’d give him just as soon as he found them.

“Well, I’m goin’ too. I’ll get the first aid kit.” Cid nodded his agreement, and both men turned to head back to the camp, but Barrett abruptly halted when he caught a subtle movement in his peripheral vision.

Cid looked quizzically back him. “Got a problem?”

“Did you see something?” He pointed his pincer to the left, and Cid swiveled his head to squint in that direction. “I don’t see nuthin’.”

Then Barrett saw it again. A small shape darting across the ground, barely visible in the starlight. “There! There it is! Did ya see it?”

“You’re seein’ things Barrett.” A pair of golden eyes suddenly flashed their way. “Whoa! What the hell is that?” Instinctively, Cid flipped his lance overhand to point the sharp tip at the unidentified entity that watched them from the darkness. “I never seen any animal with weird eyes like that.” Cid added warily.

“You know…I think I have…” Barrett said slowly. “But…”

Before he could finish, the animal rushed out of the darkness, the golden eyes unblinking as it made its mad charge. Cid swung his lance, but the agile attacker simply eluded the blade with a mighty leap at the Captain’s throat. Cid stumbled back with a startled yelp when the creature wrapped furry arms tightly around his neck. He dropped the lance and tore at the unrelenting arms with both hands as he wildly danced around, trying to get it off before it sank its sharp fangs into his neck. He tripped over his own big feet and fell hard onto his side, and the thing finally let go. At that point, it occurred to him that Barrett was laughing. “What the hell!? Where’d it go?” He glared all around.

“It’s Cait,” Barrett choked breathlessly.

“It’s what?” Cid asked in confusion.

The robotic cat sprang onto Cid’s back and covered his eyes with both mittened hands. “Peekabo!” he sang out.

“Oh…Cait Sith,” Cid said in a voice gone weak with relief. Then he raised his hands to remove the cat’s paws from his face, and he wearily climbed to his feet. The cat jumped to the ground and ran around to face him. “What are you doing here, Cait?” Cid asked him. “You coulda called first.”

“The boss sent me, Cid,” Cait told him in his singsong. The cat’s face fell. “He won’t talk to me, Cid.” His voice had turned sorrowful.

“What do you mean he won’t talk to you?” Cid’s face grew still. “Do you mean Reeve won’t talk to you?”

Cait Sith’s head bowed lower. “He’s gone, Cid.”

Barrett and Cid’s eyes met in mutual concern. “Maybe it’s just a malfunction, Cait,” Barrett offered hopefully, more for his benefit than Cait’s.

The cat slowly shook his head. “I checked that already, Barrett. He’s gone. We have to find him.”

“We’ll find him, Cait,” Cid reassured the robotic cat, and then shook his head at himself as he remembered that the cat, despite his sad demeanor, was merely acting on a program.

“We probably should have Cait try again,” Barrett told the Captain. Cid nodded his agreement, his blue eyes rife with worry. However, before either man could act on the suggestion, a loud commotion rose somewhere near the encampment, several loud shouts and a spate of shrilly voiced curse words.

“What now?” Cid asked wearily.

Another shout came from the darkness, much closer than before, followed by a protracted squawk. Then the shrill female voice cursed again. Cid and Barrett’s eyes met again, with a mutual mixture of relief and amusement. “Yuffie!” they both said in unison.

In the next moment, the great river chocobo rocketed into the lighted clearing, headed directly for them, showing no sign of slowing. Cid jumped one way while Barrett scrambled the other. The chocobo raced on by, and Yuffie bailed off the side, landing hard on her butt at Cid’s feet. The Captain automatically reached down to offer her a hand, and she took it, stiffly standly to ruefully rub her injured rear end with one hand.

“What about him?” Cid looked off into the darkness where the chocobo had carried Derrick Heidegger to parts unknown.

Yuffie waved a dismissive hand. “Don’t worry about him. He’ll be fine.”

Nanaki padded into the light, and Yuffie rounded on him as fire ignited in her ebony eyes. “Just as soon as certain sharp fanged persons stop following him,” she growled with exasperation.

Nanaki guiltily hung his head. “I wasn’t following you, Yuffie,” he tried to explain. “I was just returning after I saw you pass by. I’m sorry I scared your chocobo.”

“Forget it,” Yuffie said curtly. “He’ll come back. Sometime.” She swiveled serious eyes to the Captain. She had crucial information to impart, and she meant to do it right away. “I got into Sector Five, Cid. People are trapped inside. A lot of them. And they’re running out of time. And Cloud’s there too. He’s trapped now too.”

“How’d you get in and out?” Cid asked tersely as he turned his thoughts to a picture of the Sector Five Gate.

“I crawled through the wreckage,” she informed him in a matter-of-fact voice. “I’m no expert but I think enough wreckage can be cut away so we can get those people out.”

Cid narrowed fierce blue eyes in understanding. “We’re definitely going to need more help now.”

Yuffie’s face collapsed in frowning concern. “We can’t wait for more people, Cid. We have to get started.”

Cid lifted his head as a distant sound touched his ears, a gentle throbbing that piqued his interest. “Sector Five will take priority, Yuffie. Don’t worry about that.” He turned his head toward the city wall. “We’ll need Heidegger, though. Why don’t you go retrieve him?” For once Yuffie didn’t argue or pop off one of her smart remarks. She simply nodded and ran away into the darkness.

The subtle throb that Cid had first thought rose from somewhere inside the city had grown louder and evolved into a dull thump, and he knew exactly what it was then. “Chopper coming,” he said absently to himself.

Barrett stepped up beside him and looked up to search the sky. “Where is it?” He could hear it, but he couldn’t see it.

Cid raised a finger to point at the destroyed Midgar skyline at a spot just above the buried Sector Two gate. “Right there.”

“I don’t see it,” Barrett said irritably.

Then the helicopter shot out over the exact spot that Cid still pointed, just barely skimming the top of the city wall as it passed, twin spotlights blazing down to paint the ground below in brilliant white, the Shinra logo on the underbelly clearly visible.

“See it now?” Cid asked smugly.

Barrett didn’t bother to answer as they both watched the chopper swoop lower in an arc to circle back, its forward movement slowing as the spotlights skated across the work site, glaring down on the workers as they blocked their eyes to peer up.

The chopper crept inexorably in their direction as the pilot sent the bird toward the encampment, the floods picking out the details of the layout as it moved. Eventually, the two men and the silently watchful Nanaki floated into the light, and the chopper stopped completely to hover.

“The Turks, I’ll bet,” Barrett finally said with a hint of disgust. “Wonder what the hell they want.”

He noticed Barrett’s frown of displeasure, and he knew it wasn’t the Turks that bothered him. Just Reno. He also knew that Reno would probably be onboard. He’d recognized the chopper’s call sign as the one that had overflown his Gelnika in flight earlier. For his own part, he was intensely interested in the occupants of that chopper, as well as what they had to say. The face he thought he’d seen earlier had returned several times during the day to tease his thoughts, and he needed to make peace with the impossible image stuck in his mind. He had to find out the real identity of that woman, and lay the ghost to rest.

Cid didn’t speak any of those thoughts aloud, but simply shrugged indifferently as he watched the helicopter settle towards the ground. “Looks like we’re about to find out.”

Reno swiveled his head to look at Caitlin from his place in the pilot’s seat. “This is a waste of time,” he informed her coolly. “They haven’t cleared the gate. We might as well just fly in.”

She returned his gaze steadily even as she squeezed her arms around her waist in an attempt to quell the queasiness in her stomach. “I told you, Reno, I want to find out if Captain Highwind has heard any news of Reeve. Maybe they’ve been in contact.” She hoped with every part of her being that was so. If she didn’t find out something soon, she thought she might simply fly apart.

Reno shrugged indifferently. “Your decision.” He methodically shut down the chopper controls and the lights. Caitlin grabbed the handle of her door in anxious fingers, but found it wouldn’t budge. Her azure eyes blazed as she leaned forward in her seat to glare at the redheaded Turk. “Unlock the door, Reno,” she ordered him.

He stubbornly shook his head. “We’ll just stay put for the moment.” He shot a glance at his co-pilot. “Rude.” The big Turk shoved his door open and climbed out. Reno locked the door as soon as Rude pushed it shut.

Caitlin slumped back in her seat to watch Rude approach the small group. Cid stepped forward to meet him. If Reno had thought she would try for Rude’s open door, he was sadly mistaken. She simply couldn’t dredge up the motivation. “We could make a break for it,” Elena whispered near her ear. Caitlin swiveled her head back to take in the blonde Turk’s half-smile. She might have thought Elena had read her mind, but Caitlin had noticed shortly after their reunion outside the materia shop that Elena appeared to be mad at Reno. Elena probably relished the idea of knocking the Leader of the Turks in the head and making good their escape. Caitlin smiled half-heartedly. “Maybe later,” she whispered back. Elena let her head fall back against the seat with an exaggerated sigh of boredom.

Caitlin’s eyes traveled to the back where she sought out Avian’s shadowed face. He’d been completely silent during the flight to Midgar, seemingly content to sit cross-legged in the cramped space behind the seats with the little girl, who had attached herself to him at first sight of him, sleeping in his lap and the dog curled drowsily in front of him with a head propped on one knee. “You okay?” She could just barely see him nod his head in the dim light from the front panels. Caitlin smiled reassuringly even though he probably couldn’t see it in the dim cab. Then she turned her attention back to the conversation outside, just in time to see the Captain point back to the helicopter. Rude shook his head, and the Captain frowned.

“Looks like there’s a problem,” Elena remarked with interest.

Reno lifted his head from the back of his seat and leaned sideways to see for himself. The Captain again gestured, this time more vehemently, with one finger stabbing the air in the direction of the chopper. Rude shrugged and half-turned to look. Then he sharply turned on heel and headed back.

Reno unlocked the door as he reached it, and Rude opened the door. “What’s the holdup?” Reno asked curtly.

“Highwind wants to talk to Caitlin.” Rude nodded toward the back. “He says he’s not talking to anybody else.”

“Fine,” Reno snapped. “Get in.” He turned to the chopper controls. Rude didn’t move, and Reno pinned him with glittering eyes. “Well?” he asked icily.

“Highwind says the cat’s here,” Rude informed him in emotionless monotone. Reno stared at the big Turk wordlessly as he rethought his decision to leave. He knew they might be able to contact Reeve with the cat, but he deemed direct action at this time more expedient. “We don’t need the cat,” Reno finally informed him. “Get in.”

“I’ll talk to Captain Highwind,” Caitlin said from the backseat. “Unlock the door.”

The redheaded Turk sat motionless for a long moment, and Caitlin thought she might have to repeat her order more firmly. But Reno suddenly threw up a hand and flipped a switch that unlocked all the doors. “Everybody out,” he said cheerily. “Last one out’s a rotten egg.” Then he threw open his door and jumped down. She had no idea what scheme might be coagulating in his mind, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to know.

Rude opened her door and held out a hand to help her down as Elena slid out the other side. Soldier jumped out behind her and ran past her with a happy bark. She waited for Avian to wriggle his way from the back far enough to hand her the sleepy eyed Rachel. Caitlin set her on her feet and took her by the hand to walk her toward the Captain who watched the crowd unload from the chopper with a bemused smile on his face. His expression sharpened when Avian stepped out, and Caitlin looked behind her to see him nod to the Captain respectfully.

She walked woodenly forward to halt in front of the Captain as incisive blue eyes scrutinized every detail of her face. Uncomfortable beneath his inspection, she offered him her hand. “Captain Highwind,” she acknowledged respectfully.

He dragged off his glove and took her hand in a firm grasp. “Caitlin Shinra,” he replied lowly as he shook her hand. “Seems you aren’t a ghost after all.”

A wry smile came to her lips. “No, sir. I’m not.”

He released her hand and took note of all the people who stood around her. “Some time you’ll have to tell me your story, but looks like right now’s not the time.”

“Probably not,” she agreed. She took a look around as well. Avian stood to her left, a few feet from Elena, and Rude stood close to her right elbow. And Reno. She half-turned to look further afield. He wasn’t there. Her smooth brow creased with concern, she brought her azure gaze back to the Captain’s face.

“What can I do for you, Caitlin?” the Captain asked her politely.

“I understand you have the…er…cat…here,” she said hesitantly.

“Sure do,” Cid replied with a nod.

“I wanted to know if you had been in contact with my…” She sharply caught her breath at what she’d almost said, and then she cleared her throat and tried again, aware of the Captain’s puzzled look as he looked down at her. “Have you heard from Reeve Alexander?”

Cid nodded his head. “Yeah, we talked to him on the radio, but the connection was bad, and we lost him.”

“When was that?” Caitlin eagerly asked as hope swelled in her heart.

“Dunno. Haven’t been keepin’ up with time good.” He tipped his head and squinted up at the stars. “It was this afternoon, not too long after we landed.”

“I see.” She dropped her disappointed eyes to her feet.

“Cait says he can’t talk to him,” Cid said carefully. “You know anything about that?”

“I received an alert on my commpad,” Reno spoke from behind her before she could get a word out. Startled, she turned to look over her shoulder at him. She knew he hadn’t been there a moment ago, but now there he was, lifting his lighter to the end of his cigarette. “From the cat,” he added. “An automatic message generated in the absence of contact with Alexander or his computer for nine hours and addressed to the Leader of the Turks.”

“Nine hours?” Cid sharply inquired as his brow furrowed in lines of deep concern.

Tears started at the corners of Caitlin’s eyes as the Captain’s tone brought home to her just how long nine hours really was, and she bent her head to hide her fear.

“Why don’t we have the cat try again,” Reno suggested as he removed the cigarette from his lips. Cid nodded in agreement as his eyes hungrily followed the burning tip. “Yeah, we better.” He dragged his eyes away to turn around with the idea of calling Cait Sith over, but his eyes encountered only Barrett, who stood several feet behind him with crossed arms and dark eyes glowering at the redheaded Turk, and Nanaki, who lay on his belly at Barrett’s feet, his head resting on one huge paw as he watched and listened to the proceedings.

“Where’s Cait Sith?” Cid asked with alarm.

Barrett looked around, and Nanaki lifted his head. “He was just here,” Barrett said in bewilderment.

“Was Cait Sith here?” Nanaki asked with surprise. “I haven’t seen him.”

“You had to see him!” Cid threw a hand and jabbed a finger at Nanaki. “He was right there! I was talkin’ to him. Just before that chocobo ran through here.”

“Chocobo?” Reno asked with interest.

Barrett’s brows suddenly shot up. “Hey, you don’t think…”

“You guy’s havin’ a party without me?” Yuffie huffed as she walked in from the darkness. “Guess I’ll just have to crash whether you like it or not.” Her dark eyes traveled around the group, and her eyes stopped on Avian Wulfe’s face. He stood a few feet from the group. Part of the group, yet separate. With downcast eyes and hunched shoulders, he looked the picture of dejection. She stared at him for a moment, waiting for him to look so she could give him the evil eye, but she might as well not be there for all the attention he paid her.

“Well, if it isn’t the dweebazoid,” she sneered. As soon as the words left her lips, Avian turned and walked away without a word or look of acknowledgement. “Was it something I said?” she drawled with a smirk. Then her dark eyes encountered the censorious azure gaze of the small woman beside Cid. Suddenly she felt guilty, and she didn’t like that.

“You didn’t find Derry?” Cid asked her irritably.

She hooked her thumbs in the belt loops of her shorts. “Course I did,” she snapped. “He’s comin’. He just had to untangle Cait from his hair.”

“He has Cait Sith?” Cid pressed her. He could feel his stress level rising. Everything seemed to be happening all at once, and he was starting to lose ground with all the matters that swirled inside his tired brain.

“Yeah, guess Cait decided to hijack his ride, and they sorta had a crash and got all tangled up. It was pretty ugly, actually.” A giggle sputtered from Yuffie’s mouth at the memory.

Cid decided to count to ten before he actually opened his mouth to yell at Yuffie and order her back to find Derry with several colorful words interlaced, and it was just as well that he’d taken the time to count because by the time he got to six, the young pilot stepped into the light behind Yuffie, and Cait Sith rode on his shoulders with his mittened paws wrapped around Derry’s forehead.

“Finally,” he said as his shoulders slumped. He swiveled weary eyes to Caitlin’s expectant face. “Why don’t we go to the HQ tent and find some chairs, and see if we can raise Reeve.” She gave him an encouraged smile and nodded.

The Captain turned his sights on Reno as the Turk released twin plumes of smoke from his nostrils. “You got another one of those?” he asked him with a mixture of reluctance and hope.

Reno held the cigarette up and lifted one brow in question. Cid slowly nodded. Reno dragged the silver cigarette case out of his pocket and tossed it to the Captain, who caught it easily. Then the Turk took Caitlin’s elbow in hand and urged her toward the distant tents as Elena and Rude fell in behind.

“Thanks,” the Captain said absently as he eyed the silver case with skepticism. “Don’t lose that,” Reno admonished him as he glanced back over one shoulder. Cid shook his head and flicked the case open with a thumbnail. He drew out one slender black cigarette and held it up before his eyes. His brow wrinkled in a frown of displeasure.

Barrett suddenly appeared at his elbow. “Beggars can’t be choosers,” he informed him sarcastically, and then he stalked away to direct the Turks to the HQ, his burning eyes on the redheaded Turk’s back as he caught up to them.

Cid sighed heavily. “Ain’t that the truth?” Then with a careless shrug, he struck a match against his boot and lit the cigarette, stuffing the silver case into his pocket as he turned toward the tent. He noticed Derry and Yuffie still standing there. He impatiently waved a hand in the direction of the tent. “Well, come on!” He pointed a finger at Derry. “And don’t let that cat out of your sight.

Derry rolled his eyes up to glimpse the white mittened hands just above his eyebrows. “That’s not likely to happen.”

Andy peered around the corner of the building at the pub across the buckled street. As he had hoped, the soldiers had been reassigned with the capture of Reeve Alexander. No reason remained to guard the building anymore, and Scarlett and her military faction would surely have no need of a building that they’d determined to be a worthy trap.

However, the area had been cleared of people. Apparently, the military had herded the residents somewhere else. He’d have to be careful to not be seen by some stray patrol. Looking both ways for any sign of movement, he dashed across the street and leapt up the steps to the front door of the pub, shoving open the unlocked door, only to freeze at sight of the senseless destruction inside. Tables were overturned and broken, chairs were busted up with the splintered fragments scattered all across the floor, and the big mirror behind the bar had been shattered with only a few shards left hanging in the frame. He recognized that the scene didn’t bode well for his recovery of Mr. Alexander’s belongings.

Realizing that he stood exposed in the doorway, he quickly pulled it shut behind. Carefully choosing his steps, he worked his way through the wreckage to the hallway door. Thankfully, he discovered the hallway to be clear, but as he hurried through the empty corridors he did acknowledge to himself that there wasn’t much to destroy there.

His worst fears were realized when he burst into the conference room to find the heavy table overturned, the city plat ripped to shreds, the pencils snapped in half and scattered across the floor, and the cabinet doors hanging wide, a couple of them off their hinges. He couldn’t even imagine what rage might have driven such wanton destruction, and his hopes that the crate would still be there dissipated a little bit with every step he took across the room. Dropping to his knees, he took a deep breath and bent to peer far back into the corner of the cabinet, still holding a tiny bit of hope in his heart that the crate had been pushed too far out of sight to be noticed, but still tensely braced for disappointment. In fact, he was so mentally prepared for the crate to be gone, that he stared at the blinking red light in numb disbelief.

With a quick look around him to ensure he was still alone, he dragged the crate into the open and picked up the glove to examine the blinking light. He noticed the button beside the tiny beacon and punched it. The light stopped blinking to glow a steady red, but he didn’t know what that meant until he heard a tinny voice coming from somewhere. He lifted the glove to his ear, but the voice wasn’t coming from there. He set the VR glove aside and looked into the crate. The lighted images on the surface of the plastic visor immediately caught his eye. Andy gingerly drew the VR headset from the box and threw his cap aside to set the contraption on his head. His eyes filled with wonder when he saw the video playback of Reno, who appeared to be staring at him. And another man who looked familiar, but he couldn’t place him offhand.

The voice came again, except it didn’t sound tinny when it played directly into his ear. He easily recognized Reno’s voice. Asking if anyone could hear.

“Yes, I can hear you!” he said eagerly. “I can see you too! Can you hear me?”

“That’s not Reeve,” Reno said to the side. At that point, Caitlin’s face came into the frame.

“No, it’s Andy,” he told them. “Andy Coakley. Remember me?”

Caitlin touched Reno’s shoulder, and the Turk stood up and left the scene, allowing Caitlin to sit in his place. Briefly he reappeared when he moved behind her and leaned down with his hands on either side of her chair to peer into his face from the lenses.

Caitlin offered him an encouraging smile. “Of course I do, Andy.” Then the smile faded. “Is Reeve there, Andy? I need to talk to him.”

Andy nervously cleared his throat. “He’s…not here, Caitlin…” His voice grew strained at the difficulty of the news he had to impart. Caitlin noticed the change right away. “What is it, Andy? What’s happened?” He could see the fear in her eyes.

“They arrested him, Caitlin. And I think…I think…”

“Who arrested him?” Reno curtly interrupted him.

“The military. Gellner.”

“Gellner? He’s behind this?”

Andy shook his head, and then grimaced when he remembered they couldn’t see him. “No…Scarlett…”

The name had an instant reaction. Naked shock flashed into the Turk’s green eyes. Caitlin’s hand flew to her mouth as her face collapsed in horror. The man with the grizzled chin next to her actually jumped to his feet and vanished from the video picture, and a babble of excited voices and a couple of loud curses indicated the presence of others in the same room, several in fact, all out of range of the camera.

Reno recovered quickly and stared at him with frightening intensity. “Do you know where they’ve taken him?”

Andy shook his head. “I saw them. In Sector Two. But I don’t know where they were going.”

Reno’s eyes narrowed in contemplation. “Where in Sector Two?”

“Near the Army mess tent.” Andy noticed that Caitlin now had her face buried in both hands.

“What else can you tell me?”

“Nothing…I mean…there are rumors…but nothing official…”

“What are the rumors?”

“Just that…they arrested General Sand, and I heard that he’s to be executed in the morning. And maybe…”


“I…can’t say it…” Andy’s throat closed at the thought of speaking the words, as though his saying it would make it real.

“Just say it.” Reno insisted.

“Maybe…him too…”



Caitlin abruptly slid from the chair and left.

Reno turned his head long enough to give someone off screen a curt nod, and then the glittering green eyes were back on his face. “What else?”

“Only that…things are nuts here…the military is…I don’t know…gathering people up and putting them under guard…and there’s shooting…and rioting, I think…and that Scarlett…I heard her laughing…I think she’s crazy…”

Reno scowled into the camera. “She’s always been that. What else?”

“Nothing. That’s all I know.”

“Where are you? Are you in a safe place?”

“I think so…” Andy looked fearfully around the trashed room. “It’s a pub in Sector Three. I don’t think they’ll come back here…”

“If you don’t think it’s safe, get out and go somewhere else. Don’t let the military get their hands on that equipment.”


The screen suddenly went black, and Andy wearily dragged the VR headset off his head and dropped it into the box. After a moment of thought, he added the glove to the box and scooted across the floor on his rear with the crate in tow. Putting his back to the overturned conference table he unslung his rifle and laid the weapon across his knees, and he wrapped an arm around the crate. Leaning his head back against the table, he closed his eyes, his strength completely drained now that he'd accomplished what Mr. Alexander had asked of him. Help was on the way in the form of the Turks. They would get Scarlett in hand. They were probably the only ones that could. All he could do now was hide as best he could and wait. More exhausted then he realized from his efforts on Reeve's behalf, sleep overtook Andy unawares. Within minutes, he was asleep, and he slumbered so soundly that he didn’t even notice when the lights went out in Sector Three.

Reno shoved the flap aside to step out of the canvas tent and found Elena standing in front of the tent with arms crossed and the toe of her boot tapping. She turned her petulant hazel-eyed gaze on him. Ignoring her, Reno shot a look around the immediate area, but didn’t see Caitlin at all. His eyes landed squarely on Elena’s face. “Where is she?” he demanded icily. Elena didn’t care for his tone, and she turned her head to look out into the darkness with a sniff of disdain. “She’s right there,” Elena informed him in a voice that more than rivaled his for coldness. “Perhaps you should have your eyes examined, Reno.” Elena had several questions burning in her mind; guestions about Scarlett and what they were going to do about her and why he found it so amusing to play games with her head, but she wasn’t about to ask him a single one. Especially the last one.

“I’m here,” Caitlin spoke from right beside him where she sat on the ground with her arms wrapped around her drawn up knees. Reno walked around to stand in front of her. “You should stay here,” he told her even though he knew she wouldn’t. Before he’d gotten the words completely off his lips, she was shaking her head. “I’m going, Reno, and I’m not going to argue with you about it.”

Reno nodded in easy surrender. “Let’s get going then. Time is short.” Caitlin looked up at him with reddened eyes, and he offered her his hand. Without a word, she took it and let him pull her onto her feet. Reno shifted his gaze to a watchful Elena. She immediately turned her face away when she noticed him looking at her.

“Elena, you and Rude will stay here and watch over Rachel and Avian,” Reno told her evenly. “We’ll return here as soon as we take care of this situation.” Elena looked around at him in alarm. “You can’t go in there alone, Reno,” she said tensely. “Not even the Leader of the Turks can go up against Scarlett and the military and expect to come out on top.”

The corner of Reno’s mouth lifted in a bemused smile. “I always come out on top, Elena.” After the fiasco with the Katana Man, he found it more difficult to convince himself of that, but he could still project that confidence for her benefit.

She bowed her head and looked away. “Are you really so sure of yourself, Reno?” Her tone had turned wintry. She would not reveal the unnameable fear that set her fingers trembling to him. Not now. Not ever.

Reno noticed the two white-knuckled fists Elena pressed against her thighs, and he sauntered the few feet that separated them. He held out his hand. “Give me your hand, Elena,” he commanded. She shook her head in denial, so he simply reached out and took her fist in his hand. With two fingers of his other hand, he turned the silver bangle bracelet around her wrist. “See this, Elena?” he asked her with eyes pinned on her averted face. She swiveled her head to look down at her wrist, and he tapped a fingertip against one of the intricately engraved diamond shapes on the surface.

“What about it?” she sniffed.

“When we get there, I’ll signal you.” He touched a finger to the metal studded leather band around his own wrist. “Like this.” He gave one of the flat metal squares a hard push, and the diamond shape turned translucent with a soft golden glow. “And when it’s all over, I’ll signal you again. Got it?” Elena raised her hazel eye to meet his, and she slowly nodded. “Good,” he said curtly, and he opened his hand to release her, but she didn’t immediately remove her fist, but merely uncurled her fingers against his palm. Then, as though she’d suddenly just realized her mistake, she abruptly withdrew her hand and laid her fingers against her stomach. “Just…be careful, Reno,” she implored. “Okay?”

He took a step closer to her and leaned in to bring his lips near her ear. “Don’t worry about that, baby. I think I owe somebody a raincheck.”

Elena lifted her chin to a haughty angle. “Don’t you be worrying about that raincheck, Reno,” she replied lowly. “No one’s going to claim it.”

Reno smiled coolly. “We’ll see about that.” Then he walked away from her without a backward glance, turning the whole of his attention to Caitlin. “Let’s go, Caitlin.” He waited for her to join him, and then turned toward the helicopter, shortening his steps as she walked alongside. She didn’t say a word until Reno opened the door of the chopper and held out a hand to help her climb in. With one foot in the chopper, she paused to look up into his face with an unspoken question in her anxious eyes. “Reno?” she asked. A cold smile touched the redheaded Turk’s thin lips. “Don’t worry, Caitlin. I’ll dig your old man out of the hole he’s gotten himself into, and then I’ll take care of Scarlett too.”

“I’m not going to say what you want, Scarlett,” Reeve told her in a steady voice. He squared his shoulders against the high-backed office chair she’d pushed him down into when they’d first arrived in the office. Abruptly, she dropped onto the desk beside him and crossed one slim leg over the other. Lifting the pistol, she stroked the barrel along the clotted gash on his cheek. A sweet smile touching her lipstick smudged lips, she shoved the barrel into the cut with a hard jab, and he winced at the pain. “You will say what I want, Reeve,” she told him with a pout on her lips. “You don’t have any choice, sweetheart.”

Reeve shrugged his shoulders in a careless shrug. “Why should I? You’re going to shoot me in the end anyway.”

“There are worse ways to die, baby,” she cooed at him.

“Dead is dead,” he replied stonily. “No matter how you do it.”

He kept his eyes carefully still as he watched Ian Cornell gesture at him from where he stood against the wall across the room. Lifting a hand to point a finger in Scarlett’s direction, he raised one eyebrow in question and mouthed a word that Reeve thought might be ‘gun’. Then he pointed the finger at himself and back at Scarlett. Reeve realized that Cornell was asking him for approval of a plan to go for Scarlett’s gun. Normally, he wouldn’t give his acceptance to such a dangerous scheme, but Gellner had left the room, leaving only Scarlett and her pistol standing between the two of them and freedom. Cornell had a better than even chance of succeeding. Reeve gave Ian the barest of nods. Then he set out to distract the insane woman, lifting dark eyes to her vacuous face.

“What do you hope to accomplish, Scarlett? You will never possess the Shinra Corporation. The company doesn’t belong to you, and it never will.”

She stared at him in confusion for a moment, and then she filled the room with her mad laughter. “I suppose you think the company belongs to you, Reeve Alexander,” she said gleefully between guffaws.

“Actually…no,” Reeve replied as he watched Cornell creep away from the wall from the corner of his eye. “The Shinra Corporation belongs to the Shinra family.”

Scarlett looked at him sadly. “Reeve, darling, have you forgotten? All the Shinras are dead.” She reached out to toy with a lock of his hair. “I know you wanted the company, darling, but you simply can’t have it.” Her eyes turned sultry as she slid her hand into his hair. “Although…I would rather share it with you than that clumsy idiot Gellner…” she suggested in a soft, silky voice. “What about it, Reeve?”

Fighting his revulsion, Reeve denied the need to jerk his head away from Scarlett’s questing fingers and held himself carefully still. Cornell was slipping up behind her now, eyes relentlessly focused on the gun Scarlett held pointed in the air beside her cheek. He could not lose an iota of her attention just then. A cool smile curved his lips. “What’s in it for me, Scarlett? I’ve no intention of being your lackey.”

“A life with me, baby,” she cooed at him as she leaned closer. With one hand flat on the desk, Cornell leaned across, his other hand reaching for the gun. “There is not one thing in this world that I want badly enough to commit myself to that hell, Scarlett,” Reeve said softly. “Not even the Shinra Corporation.” A strange light ignited in her eyes at his words, and he might have feared her reaction under other circumstances, but at that moment, Cornell finally grabbed the barrel of the gun and gave it a hard yank, counting on her relaxed grip on the gun to snatch it from her. Unfortunately, her grip wasn’t as loose as he expected, and when he pulled the gun toward him, she came with it, swinging halfway around on the desk to level eyes full of promise on his face.

Desperately, Ian threw his other hand around the gun and jerked harder, but her grip on the gun only tightened along with her finger on the trigger. The gun discharged into the ceiling, the sharp explosion of sound deafening in the small room. Then it went off again.

Reeve had been watching in strained silence, wanting to help Cornell, but unable to rise from his seat. Now he tested the strength of the ropes that bound his wrists to the arms of the chair, knowing that Gellner would be coming any second, along with a contingent of military police, and also knowing that the effort was a colossal waste of energy, but he had nothing to lose. No more than Cornell had to lose, anyway.

An enraged screech came from Scarlett’s mouth, and Reeve looked up again, only to see that she had managed to throw her legs across the desk to slide off the other side. She gained her feet and let her hand fly at Cornell’s face. He cried out in pain as she raked her ragged nails across his face. But he didn’t let go. He stubbornly held on. Probably because he knew if he let go now, she would shoot him. Scarlett wrapped her other hand around his and dug at his fingers with her nails in a concerted effort to force him to release the gun, and their struggle became a mad dance around the room as she pressed against him in her effort to lever the gun from his grasp, and he fought to retreat from her as he tried to wrest it away at the same time. They both stumbled around the small space until they fell against the wall, and she shrieked her rage again as she convulsively pulled the trigger. This time the bullet slammed into the paneling perilously close to Ian’s head, and the engineer’s strained face when still with shock.

Just then, Reeve heard the pounding of the footsteps in the hallway outside the door and he slumped hopelessly back into the chair. Gellner and his troops had come, and Reeve knew it would end badly for Cornell. The engineer would suffer the same fate as the copper haired girl, and Reeve only had himself to blame. The door burst open, and Reeve closed his eyes as the earsplitting chatter of automatic gunfire filled the room, and the executive scrunched his eyes painfully at the vision in his mind, the end result that he didn’t want to open his eyes to see, but when the gun fell silent, he did anyway.

Amazingly, the engineer was still standing, his hands lifted at half-mast and head bent. Half a dozen soldiers surrounded him with rifles aimed directly at him, and Gellner had his service pistol pointed at Cornell’s face. Her face twisting in rage, Scarlett swept the pistol in a high arc toward the engineer’s head, much as she’d done when she’d slashed Reeve’s face, but this time she cracked the butt of her pistol against his skull, dropping the stunned man where he stood. Cornell crumpled to the floor at her feet. Scarlett dropped the nearly empty gun onto the fallen man's stomach and snatched the pistol from the startled Gellner’s hand. Intending to unload the full chamber, she pointed the gun at the unconscious engineer, who lay on the floor out of Reeve’s sight.

“Don’t do it, Scarlett,” Reeve said evenly, careful to keep any hint of command from his voice. “You’ll need him.”

Scarlett’s face went slack as she stared down at the engineer. Then she propped a hand on her hip and cocked her head appraisingly. “Ah…you’re right, Reeve. He’s too pretty to kill.” She turned and tossed Gellner his gun. “Lock him up,” she commanded with a vacant smile. “I’ll take care of him later.” Then she stalked around the room and fisting both hands around Reeve’s wrists, she towed the office chair around as she bent to smile down into his wary face. “Time to get down to business, Reeve Alexander. I’m not playing your games anymore. It’s almost show time, and you are going to say exactly what I’ve written, word for word, and with the proper treatment. You’ll have a captive audience, and I expect you to exercise your usual eloquence.”

Reeve impassively looked past her, watching two MPs carry the unconscious Cornell through the door with his feet dragging. When the door closed behind them, he slowly began to shake his head. “I will not,” he flatly stated.

She brought her face closer, until they were almost nose-to-nose. “Oh, you will, Reeve. You most certainly will. You might not care to save your own life, but there are others.” She smiled at the alarm in his eyes, and without breaking eye contact with him, she raised her voice. “General Gellner, get me someone to shoot.”

On the other side of the desk, Gellner shifted uneasily in place at her request. “How about Sand? Will he do?” Gellner wanted him out of the way as soon as possible. Better sooner than later.

Scarlett shook her head. “Oh no, not him. I want a civilian.” She stared unblinking into Reeve’s stricken eyes. “One of those slum kids outside, I think.”

Reeve’s eyelids fell as he slumped bonelessly into his chair in defeat, a deflated man stripped naked of every shred of free will. Scarlett turned her head as Gellner opened the door to act on her order. “Never mind, General Gellner. Mr. Alexander is going to cooperate.” She brought happy eyes back to his empty face. “In fact, Mr. Alexander is going to do whatever I want. Isn’t he?”

Numbly, Reeve nodded his head, and her mad laughter rang in his ears. He knew, if he were to survive another day, that crazy laughter would steal his dreams and fuel his nightmares.

Suddenly, Caitlin’s face came to his mind, almost as though he’d invoked her to shut out the hateful visage of the predatory Scarlett. Caitlin’s face had been the one to fuel both his dreams and his nightmares for over a decade. He recalled her as he’d last seen her. The sorrow in her beautiful blue eyes. The slender hand pressed to her trembling lips. A hand bare of the ring he’d once placed reverently on her finger. The same gold band that hung on the chain around his neck. She was innocent of the blood and misery wrought by corporate hands, and she was naïve. Scarlett’s cruelty would destroy her, and he would be helpless to save her.

Runaway Caitlin. He silently implored her in his mind. Fly home to your island and don’t ever look back. He prayed she would do just that, even though he knew quite well that she wouldn’t. She’d ever been the one to do exactly the opposite of what everyone wanted her to do.

“Do you think this will work?” Caitlin asked nervously as she watched the soldiers converge around the helicopter. Reno shut down the last of the chopper controls and pinned steady green eyes on her troubled face. “Just stick to the plan,” he reminded her firmly.

“I will but…I’m not very good at this subterfuge stuff…”

Reno smiled wryly as he remembered her actions in Kalm as well as her occasional slips of the tongue. He well knew that to be true. “Just follow my lead, and we’ll be okay.” He reached past her to rifle through the contents inside a small pocket set in the control panel in front of her. Eventually, he withdrew a couple of thin leather wallets. He glanced at both, pocketed one and tossed the other one back in. “That one won’t work,” he muttered. He found another one, and pressed it into her reluctant hand. She opened the small wallet to look at the photo identification inside. She immediately started shaking her head as butterflies filled her stomach. “This won’t work, Reno,” she told him in a voice high with strain. “Elena and I don’t look anything alike. And she’s a lot taller, and…”

“Just don’t let them get a good look,” he advised her. “The photos suck anyway.”

Her fearful eyes jumped to the glass behind him. “They’re here,” she breathed. He raised cool eyes to the soldier peering through the tinted glass behind her head. “So they are.” He handed her a pair of sunglasses. “Now stop looking like a scared kitten. Be a Turk. Think…Tseng.”

Startled, she stared at him wide-eyed for a long moment, and then she smiled. “I can do that.” She’d spent many an hour mimicking Tseng in her younger days. She might actually pull that one off.

An officer tapped on the window of Reno’s door, and the Turk cracked the door ajar. “Stand back,” he commanded in a tone that demanded immediate action. The man instantly complied, and Reno climbed down and pinned him with a stony stare, his face rife with displeasure. The soldier standing beside the officer lifted his gun, and Reno shot out a hand and threw the barrel to the side. Wisely, the soldier pointed the weapon at the ground. “What is going on here?” he demanded of the officer. “Weren’t you informed of our arrival?”

Seemingly oblivious to the soldiers that trailed her around the chopper, Caitlin sauntered to Reno’s side and came to a stop beside him. Clasping her hands behind her back, she lifted her chin and peered at the officer through her dark shades, an enigmatic smile on her lips. The officer studied the two of them uncertainly. “Well…no. Who are you?”

“Turks,” Reno replied coldly. “Scarlett is expecting us.”

The officer scrutinized their clothing with a great deal of skepticism, especially the dingy blue jeans, oversized sweatshirt, and grass stained sneakers that Caitlin wore. “You don’t look like Turks…” he spoke his thoughts aloud.

“Sir…” The soldier beside the officer leaned close. “That is Reno,” he whispered to him. “You have seen him before, haven’t you?”

The officer frowned at the interruption. “Do you have identification?”

Reno’s eyes narrowed in irritation. “You want to see my i.d.?”

The officer hesitantly nodded. With an icy smile, Reno dug the identification wallet out of his shirt pocket and flipped it open. He held it up before the officer’s eyes, not six inches away, and the officer glanced at it, rewarding Reno with an uneasy nod. “Look closer,” Reno ordered.

“There’s no need to do that, Sir,” he responded weakly.

“I want you to be sure,” Reno persisted. “One hundred percent.”

“I’m convinced, Sir.”

With a curt nod of acceptance, Reno snapped the wallet closed and returned it to his pocket. “Now, if you’ll excuse us.”

Still, the officer didn’t signal his soldiers to open a pathway. “What about her?” the officer asked. Reno stared at him in disbelief that he would ask. “She’s a Turk too.”

“She seems pretty…small…to be a Turk,” he said uneasily.

“Haven’t you read the employee handbook?” Reno drawled in a silky voice that held a hint of censure.

The officer’s eyes darted to his face in surprise. “What do you mean? What employee handbook?”

“Section 3-12. Part 1a. The company will not discriminate in regard to race, gender, sexual orientation or lack thereof, religious affiliation or lack thereof, weight, eye color, dinner preferences, television viewing inclinations, or height."

Caitlin’s lips twitched at the pure astonishment on the officer’s face at the inane litany. She bit the inside of her lip to keep from laughing out loud.

“Are you serious?” the officer asked in bewilderment.

“Do I look serious?” Reno inquired coolly.

The officer warily viewed the Turk’s deadly snake-eyed regard, and slowly nodded. “Fine, if you’ll excuse us then.” Reno took a step, but the officer still showed no inclination to release them to go on their way.

“I need to see her identification,” the officer stubbornly persisted. A slight smile touched Reno’s lips as he fleetingly thought about pulling out his magrod and zapping the man with a full charge, but the action would probably screw up his plan. Besides, he’d known it might come down to this anyway. He’d done everything he could to dissuade the man from looking at Elena’s i.d., but the officer was just one of those pedantic, ‘by the book’ types. He inclined his head at Caitlin. “Show him.”

Caitlin smartly removed the wallet from her jeans and flipped it open, holding it up just as Reno had. The officer leaned close, and Reno cleared his throat. Caitlin snapped the wallet closed and returned it to her pocket. “Satisfied?” Reno inquired silkily.

“Let them pass,” he snapped.

Reno pointedly lowered narrowed eyes to the man’s nametag. “I will be certain to commend Scarlet on your remarkable attention to detail, Lieutenant Squires. When she inquires as to the reason for my delay.” The Turk’s lips curved with satisfaction at the dismay on the man’s face. Then he smartly turned on heel and strode away as Caitlin trotted to catch up.

“Television viewing inclinations, Reno?” She smiled up at him as she hurried along beside him.

The Turk shifted serious eyes to her amused face as he automatically shortened his stride. “Would you say the personnel department of the Shinra Corporation considers what their potential employees watch on the television, Ms. Shinra? Especially as the company owns every network?”

“I suppose not…” Her smile turned rueful. She thought about chiding him again for addressing her as ‘Ms. Shinra’, especially as she was supposedly masquerading as Elena, but the thought of the blonde Turk reminded her of what she’d overheard Reno say to Elena, just before they'd left on the chopper. She didn’t think he’d made good on his word.

“Reno…have you signaled Elena yet?” Her frown of disapproval brought fine lines to her smooth brow.

“What?” His eyes narrowed on the reproachful azure eyes.

“You told her you would. Remember? She’s going to think something happened if you don’t.”

Reno didn’t bother to respond, gazing at her with dispassionate eyes for a long moment. He abruptly stopped in his tracks and shoved his sleeve back to jab a finger at the metal decoration on the leather band. Almost immediately, one of the faux metal pieces on his band flashed. Reno stared down quizzically at his wrist. “What was that?” Caitlin asked curiously. “Did you do that?”

Already losing interest in the whole business, Reno shook his head and let his hand fall to his side. “No, she signaled back.”

A soft smile came to Caitlin’s face. “She must have been watching for your signal pretty closely,” she coyly observed.

Reno’s fiery brows drew together in consternation at the teasing nature of her words. “She was probably admiring her nails,” he drawled slyly. “For the hundredth time.”

He picked up his pace, and she was forced to a near trot to keep up as he turned into the street in front of the old Shinra Headquarters. The sight of the building brought her up cold, and she stopped in her tracks and stared as her hand flew to her mouth. Only that morning, she’d left the building. Walked to the chopper with the Turks and left him behind.

A sudden burst of gunfire, somewhere not so far away, brought her heart leaping into her throat to steal her breath away. With fingers pressed to her lips to stifle the gasp, she darted apprehensive eyes around the nearly empty street, void of all life but for the soldiers guarding the entrance to the Shinra building and the ones watching them from the rooftop of the defunct city building across the street with guns held at ready. All the people that had been milling about the streets, coming and going of their own will only hours before, were nowhere to be seen, and Caitlin could only imagine what Scarlett might have done with them all. She knew that Scarlett would hesitate at nothing to achieve her mad goals. Tears burned at her eyes at the thought of Reeve in Scarlett’s hands. She had only herself to blame if she lost him. She shouldn’t have left him there. Without the Turks. Without her.

Reno wrapped a hand around her upper arm and startled her from her anguished thoughts. She lifted her anxious eyes to find him gazing down the street in the direction of the gunfire, narrowed eyes thoughtful. Then he shifted them to her face. “We’d better go,” he said bluntly. “Stay close.” He released her and started walking again, scanning the windows and doorways as they moved on past the tall office building.

“Do you really think Reeve is in there?” she asked tightly as she forced her face into a mask of cool authority, managing to display a calmness that completely contradicted her rapid pulse and sickly churning stomach.

“It’s a safe bet,” he replied tersely

“Do you think he’s okay?” she apprehensively asked, seeking his reassurance as she darted a look back over her shoulder at the building as they moved on down the broken street.

“He’s alive.” He lifted one shoulder in a shrug of indifference.

“I hope so…” She couldn’t even entertain the thought that he might not be, because if she thought about it, she would burst into tears, and her thinly maintained Turk disguise would be lost, what little of it was left anyway. Turks never cried. Not where anyone could see them anyway.

Reno noticed her furrowed brow, and he sensed the anxiety hidden behind the shades. “Scarlett won’t kill him,” he promised her. “She can’t. She needs him.”

“But she’s crazy.”

“Crazy like a fox. She may be insane, but she’s not stupid.”

“I pray you’re right,” she whispered.

“I’m always right,” he flatly replied.

He halted in front of the two-story cinder block building and turned to her. “This is going to be the tricky part, so just hang back out of the way. Things could get messy.” She gave him an uneasy nod and followed him up the steps to the wooden porch that fronted the building. The soldiers that stood on each side of the entry door both nodded respectfully, and one moved to hold the door open for the two of them. Reno reached to his hip to draw out his magrod as he walked through the door, snapping the weapon out to its full length.

The soldier assigned to the desk looked up from his magazine and his eyes popped wide. Reno grinned with pleasure and strode across to slap the end of the magrod against the desk. “Well…if it isn’t my ole buddy, Chip.”

“You know him?” Caitlin asked warily as she followed more slowly.

“Of course I know ole Chip. And his buddy, Cory too,” Reno replied exuberantly as he playfully pointed a finger gun at the soldier and made the trigger pulling motion. Slowly, Chip slid the magazine into a drawer and rose to his feet. Reno looked around the room. “Where’s your partner?”

“In…john, Mr. Reno, sir.”

“No matter,” Reno replied cheerfully. “I only need you.”

Chip’s eyes filled with alarm. “For what…sir…”

“I’m here to escort General Sand to the HQ,” Reno informed him with an easy smile. “I’d appreciate it if you’d go get him for me.”

Relief filled Chip’s face at the simple request. He opened another drawer and dragged out the heavy ring of keys. “Right away, sir!” He practically stumbled back into the cellblock, eager to help the Turk on his way.

Reno shifted his smile to Caitlin’s face. “Things just got a lot simpler,” he informed her happily. “Let’s hope it’s all downhill from here.”

Before she could reply, Chip reappeared in the cellblock door and stepped aside to let Sand pass. The bulky, muscle-bound officer halted in the middle of the room and scrutinized the Turk’s face. He knew the Turks had been with Alexander before, but if they were working for Scarlett now, he knew very well that the Leader of the Turk’s presence here did not bode well for his continued existence. He clasped his hands behind his back and squared his shoulders, holding his tongue as he waited to see the lay of the landscape.

The corner of Reno’s mouth lifted. “Have you ever staged a coup d’etat, General Sand?”

At Reno’s question, Caitlin drew the shades from her face, and leveled pleading eyes on the General’s face. Sand shifted an appraising gaze from Reno to Caitlin, and back to Reno again. “I have not,” he bluntly informed the Turk. Then a cool smile came to his lips. “However, I have thought about it. More than once.”

“Then we’d better talk.” Reno drawled with a languid casualness not reflected in his deadly serious eyes. The General and the Leader of the Turks nodded in mutual understanding, and Caitlin Shinra bent her head to hide the tears of gratitude and relief glistening in the corners of her eyes.

Yuffie went down on one knee to meet the ecstatic dog. “Hey there, boy. Glad to see you too.” She reached to scratch his head and frowned as her finger encountered a patch of caked and matted fur. She touched the dried substance experimentally and watched it break away in flakes beneath her touch. Oblivious to her ministrations, Soldier snuffled at her pouch, and she obligingly reached in and drew out a strip of dried meat, the sight of which sent him into paroxysms of delight. The ninja girl surrendered her offering after only the most perfunctory of attempts to tease the dog with it, and then she stood to level thoughtful eyes on the young man sitting with downcast face and hunched shoulders on an overturned crate near the Gelnika’s belly. She stuffed her hands into the pockets of her shorts and hunched her own shoulders as she dredged up the courage to speak.

“Ah…look…Avian…I’m sorry about what I said…” She shot a quick look around to ensure no one overheard her apology. “I…didn’t mean it. I was just kidding…you know?”

He simply shrugged in unconcern, refusing to offer her even a glance. She would have welcomed even an expression of censure or contempt just then. Anything but dejection and defeat. She couldn’t even see his face for the tangled locks that fell against his cheeks as he sat with his chin resting in his hand.

“Come on, man,” she pleaded. “I can’t believe you’d be so overly sensitive about it.”

“It’s not you,” he muttered into his hand. “I just…didn’t want to…be there…”

“Oh come on,” she snapped. “I called you a silly little name, and off you ran. Now you don’t have the guts to admit it?”

Avian raised his head to look at her, and she instinctively took a step back. It was not the fierce anger in his amber eyes that startled her really, but the strange luminous glow, a soft gleam of light that faded even as she stared.

“Is everything always about you, Yuffie Kisaragi?” he inquired gruffly.


He abruptly stood and walked up to her to halt only a foot from her. Standing her ground despite his uncomfortable nearness, she tilted her head back to meet eyes now filled with sorrow.

“What’s…the…matter?” The question stumbled hesitantly from her lips.

“Have you ever…” He drew in a shaky breath and closed his eyes. “…Discovered one day that…” His turned his head away from her and reopened his eyes to stare away into the darkness.

“Discovered what?” she prompted with nervous curiosity.

The eyes fell to her face again, the amber irises now gleaming with unshed tears, and he spoke, his voice tight with strain. “Have you ever discovered that everything you ever knew or believed about yourself was…a total lie?”

Without waiting for the answer that she scrambled in her mind to concoct, he whirled away from her and broke into a stumbling run, quickly disappearing into the shadows near the tail of the huge aircraft. Yuffie dragged in a shaky breath of her own in the wake of the odd encounter. Then, with a lift of her chin, she responded to his rhetorical question in an inaudible murmur. “My life has always been a lie, Mr. Avian Wulfe.”

Elena watched the Wulfe kid run past as she ducked beneath the rolled up tent flap. She walked across the hard ground to join Rude where he leaned against the flank of the plane, the big Turk mostly concealed in the shadow of the night. She slumped wearily against the plane next to him and idly twisted her silver bracelet around her wrist as she stared after him.

“Where’s he going?” she asked curiously.

Rude shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“Shouldn’t you stay with him?” She arched an eyebrow at him.

“He won’t go far.”

As though to prove Rude’s words, Avian halted only a few yards out, his silhouette dark against the starlit sky as he tilted his head back, apparently to peruse the constellations, the dog eventually trotting up to push a nose at his leg with a worried whine.

“Where’s the girl?” Rude asked her coolly.

“Asleep in the tent,” Elena responded with equal coolness. She didn’t bother to add that Nanaki was asleep too, curled at the foot of Rachel’s cot.

The silence stretched between them then, long moments passing as she listened to the rumble of the distant bulldozer and the occasional shout of direction from Highwind. The Captain had proclaimed his intention to have the Sector Two Gate open by morning, and she was truly beginning to believe he might well accomplish his task. She hoped with all her heart that he pulled it off. Her gaze sharpening, she traced a fingernail around the edge of one of the deceptive engravings etched into the soft metal.

“Do you think he can pull it off, Rude?” she asked him with forced indifference.

Rude didn’t respond, but she could sense his speculative gaze on her face. She looked up at him beseechingly, all attempts at pretense forgotten. She could just barely see the glint of his brown eyes in the distant lantern light from the open tent flap. “Reno, I mean. Can he do it? Shouldn’t we have gone with him?”

“His plan is sound,” Rude informed her brusquely.

“But alone, Rude? And with Caitlin to protect too? It’s a terrible…” Her worried eyes fell to the ground. “…Risk…”

“Reno will be very careful,” Rude curtly reminded her. “As always.”

Elena nodded her head skeptically, but the ache in the pit of her stomach did not go away. Because she very well knew that despite his care, he could be hurt.

Unseen in the darkness, Rude’s eyes softened on her downcast face. “Don’t worry about him, Elena. Reno will be back, and he’ll be just as obnoxious as ever.”

Startled at the atypical comment from the big Turk, Elena shot a look up into his shadowed face to find, by the line of his profile, that he’d already turned his attention back to his surveillance of Avian Wulfe. Heartened by his words, she rested her head against the cool metal shell of the Gelnika and turned her eyes up to the sparkling sea of stars, the corner of her tinted lips lifting in a bare smile. If Rude said it was so, then she knew it would be so. She just had to find a way to get through the hours of waiting. Her smile expanded. Maybe she would just…breathe.

“Will you hurry up?!” Scarlett screeched at the clumsy soldier. “I want a live camera feed! And I want it now!” The soldier vehemently nodded, but the mad glint in her eyes only served to make him more awkward, and he tangled his feet in the tripod, nearly dumping the unwieldy television camera onto the floor. Fortunately for him, the impatient Scarlett had already returned her attention to the silent man sitting at the wide desk. She held up her hands to frame him as she tried to picture the effect on the big television screens scattered about the still viable sectors.

She sighed loudly at sight of Reeve’s darkly mutinous eyes. “You are going to have to do better than that, Reeve darling. You look entirely too angry to be convincing.”

Wordlessly, Reeve eyed the thick fall of disheveled and tangled golden hair, the pouting lips smeared with a fresh coat of bright red lipstick that appeared to have been applied with a very shaky hand, and her stained and torn red dress. Scarlett had taken great care to set the scene for broadcast with the large ornate desk from the former Presidential office on which he now rested his elbows, the heavy Shinra Plaque from the lobby that now hung on the wall behind him, and two decorative artificial trees in gilt containers that she had dragged out of storage and planted on either side of the plaque. The speech she’d written for him to deliver lay on the desk in front of him, inside of a leather bound folder that she’d instructed him to open with appropriate executive gravity when she gave him the nod. Yet she seemed not to be concerned about her own unkempt appearance or his. The dusty leaves of the plants behind him, the outdated design of the Shinra logo, the incoherent, nearly unreadable words of the speech she’d written, and the blood caked gash on his face didn’t appear to concern her in the least.

He flinched as she suddenly leaned toward him, but she only meant to straighten the chocobo tie at his neck. “Please try to smile, Reeve,” she said softly. “For me.” Slowly, he shook his head, his glittering eyes as frigid as the frosty ice-draped crags and crevasses of the Gaia Cliffs.

Her eyes flamed at his refusal, and she gave his tie a hard yank that pulled it uncomfortably tight. Pointedly, she shoved the leather folder against his splayed fingers. “Don’t mess with me, Reeve,” she warned him with a tiny smile. “I will do exactly what I’ve threatened, and the blame will be on your little head.” To emphasize the point, she patted the crown of his head, and he lowered his eyes to the desk as he drew the leather folder beneath his fingers.

“That’s right, love,” she said with satisfaction. “You just say what you’re supposed to, and then I’ll just take over. The company will be mine, and you’ll be dead. You lose, baby. And I win.” Her triumphant maniacal laughter rang around the room. Reeve raised his eyes to the blinking green light on the camera, and the happy face of the would-be cameraman who had finally succeeded in giving Scarlett the active feed she wanted. They were on air, and he suspected they had been for the last minute or so.

Reeve didn’t have any time to consider the implications. His eyes were drawn away from the camera when the door swept open on silent hinges, and nearly two dozen red uniformed soldiers of the third rank of the elite soldier force poured into the room and swiftly disarmed the handful of surprised guards, their numbers completely overwhelming the small contingent inside the room.

Scarlett whirled away from the desk to see Gellner standing in the open doorway. “Gellner!” she shrieked his name in outrage. “What do you think you’re doing?!”

Gellner stumbled into the room as Sand gave him a hard shove. The general walked around the defeated and quaking Gellner and pointed his automatic rifle in the approximate vicinity of her midsection. Scarlett hardly appeared to notice as she stalked toward the general, her face livid with her rage. “You can’t come in here!” she screamed at him. “Get out! Get out now!” Sand raised the rifle in warning, and Scarlett skidded to a stop. Not because of the hollow-eyed barrel pointed at her, but because of the redheaded Turk that sauntered into the room behind Sand to lean one shoulder against the doorframe. He drew the cigarette from his lips to speak. “Long time no see, Scarlett,” the Turk greeted her smoothly. “Not long enough for me, however.” He raised the pistol he’d been holding beside his leg. “I’m afraid that your employment in the Shinra Corporation is terminated.”

“You! How dare you?!” Wild eyed, she shrieked her outrage, at higher decibels than she’d ever managed before. “You yellow bellied Turk! You turn tail and flee to Junon, trembling in your loafers at the very idea of a confrontation with Avalanche! And now you dare to defy me?! You stupidly take the side of that...that…gutless impotent bastard,” she pointed a quaking finger at Reeve who’d been sitting motionless in place at the desk watching the entire sequence of events in awestruck immobility. “…Against me?! Do you actually think you can come back now and help him steal what is rightfully mine?!”

Reno idly took a drag on his cigarette before he decided to respond, releasing the smoke through his nose. “I’m hardly on his side, Scarlett,” he replied in his silkiest voice. Holding his gun unwavering on the outraged woman in case she should make a move, Reno finally relented and stepped to the side, surrendering to the persistent press of the small hand against his back. A cold smile curved his lips. “I’m on her side.”

With pounding heart and stifled breath, Caitlin darted past Reno, bursting into the room with wildly questing eyes, only to fall still the instant she unerringly found him at the wide desk where he sat in an equally frozen state with wondrous eyes locked on her face. A tentative smile came to his parted lips as she thirstily drank in his face, her eyes roaming from his darkened brown eyes to the stray lock of disarranged hair that fell against one cheek to the angry gash and the dark bruise that marked one cheekbone.

At sight of the clear evidence of Scarlett’s abuse, Caitlin's eyes flew wide in shock and her mind went blank. A ragged gasp burst from her throat, followed immediately by an explosion of brilliant light that set her azure irises afire as her rage spontaneously erupted within her. Reeve’s breath caught in closed lungs and his face went deathly still at sight of the otherworldly blaze radiating from her eyes. With a tense and futile shake of his head, he half-rose from the chair, her name hovering unspoken on his numb lips, knowing he was helpless to halt the course of events wherever they might go.

Caitlin whipped her head around to plant luminous feral eyes on Scarlett’s face. The female executive’s eyes flew wide and her face went slack with horror. Scarlett looked around wildly for an escape even as the smaller woman flew towards her with her small fist drawing back. Caitlin let her fist fly and would have struck the despicable woman smack in the face with inhuman force if Scarlett hadn’t stumbled backward and collapsed to the floor. Despite nearly losing her balance from her miss, Caitlin recovered with remarkable agility and stood over the fallen woman, poised for further assault. With terrified eyes on her assailant’s cold smile, Scarlett tried to scramble away on hands and feet as the woman with the burning eyes stalked her, but she only fell again when her high heel tangled in her tattered skirt. She came to rest on her side and threw her hands defensively before her cringing face as a hopeless whimper slipped through her tremulous lips.

It was that tiny sound of the woman’s defeat that brought Caitlin up short, and she stared down in horror as the power and the rage inexorably bled away to release her body to a trembling weakness in its wake. A hand fell on her shoulder to steady her, and her eyes darted fearfully around to find Reno standing behind her, a hint of warning in his narrowed eyes. With a shaky nod of acknowledgement, she squared her shoulders and turned back to glare down at the cowering Scarlett as she struggled to hold her own shakiness at bay. Caitlin suddenly pointed a finger at Scarlett, an unexpected move that made Scarlett flinch.

Caitlin’s chin arrogantly lifted. “The Shinra Corporation is not yours, Scarlett,” the petite woman informed her coldly. “…And it never will be. This company is mine, and you’ve no place in it. You are fired, Scarlett. What’s more, you are under arrest for your crimes against the people of Midgar and against my…” Caitlin’s breath hitched as the word caught on her throat, but she instantly recovered. “…My executive officer and the employees of my corporation.”

Scarlett stared in shock at the glacial eyes that radiated contempt and deadly resolve, and she finally recognized the familiar face, not really because she well knew this woman’s face from years before, but mainly because she had just discovered her brother in her eyes.

“Caitlin…Shinra…” she breathed in stunned awe.

The quavery feeling inside had been almost completely vanquished by the cathartic act of telling the woman off, and Caitlin smiled coolly at the woman’s accurate identification of her. Now, she was done with her. “Please remove her, Reno,” she commanded with satisfaction.

Reno moved to obey, pausing briefly to bend his head close to her ear. “Can I kill her?” he asked hopefully.

The smile vanished from Caitlin’s lips, and she turned outraged eyes to his face. “No, you cannot. Don’t even think about it.”

“You’re taking all the fun out of my life, Caitlin,” he chided her, but the twinkle in his green eyes told her he was teasing.

The corner of her mouth lifted tremulously. “Don’t forget to signal Elena,” she brusquely reminded him.

His eyes narrowed on the bare hint of amusement on her face. “I already did,” he replied laconically. A satisfied smile spread across her lips. “Did she signal you back, Reno?” Reno frowned. Pointedly, he bumped the shades down over his eyes and bent to drag Scarlett up from the floor

Caitlin turned her back to the two of them as she anxiously sought out Reeve, only to find that he’d vacated the desk. She quickly looked around her, but didn’t find him anywhere. She whirled toward the door, wondering if he’d walked over to talk to the General, but she didn’t find him there either. In fact, no one was there but Sand. Apparently, General Sand’s invasion team had taken their prisoners and left during her altercation with Scarlett. Now, only the General remained, and she closely watched as Reno handed the defeated Scarlett into his custody. Sand marched her out the door, and the Turk took up a position beside the doorway, slumping against the wall as he dragged out his silver cigarette case.

Her eyes turned quizzical at his clear intention to linger. “What are you doing, Reno?” she asked uneasily. She didn’t want to stay, and she didn’t intend to, no matter what the Turk might say. She wanted to go find Reeve who’d apparently left the room and her behind.

A cool smile came to the Turk’s lips as he raised the lighter and lit his cigarette. Then he idly pointed the burning cigarette at a point just above and beyond her left shoulder.

Immediately, she turned on heel to find Reeve standing beside the camera on the other side of the room behind her and her breath caught at sight of him. His self-assigned task to shut down the camera feed completed, he looked up at that moment to find her captivated blue eyes on his face, and he offered her a wry smile. Her heart in her throat, she crossed the room to come to a hesitant stop before him. His smile softened as his eyes roamed her glowing face. “I’m afraid your secret’s out…Caitlin…” he murmured ruefully. “I’m…sorry…”

She absently shook her head as her fingers drifted to his injured cheek. Her face turned sad as tears burned at the corners of her eyes. “Are you okay…Reeve…” she whispered brokenly.

Reeve caught her fingers before she could touch his bloodstained face, and he gently closed her small hand in both of his. Gazing down into her glimmering eyes, he replied sadly, “I’m fine, considering…” Unconsciously, he raised his fingers to touch her face. “And you…Cait…are you okay…now…?”

At the pleading note in his voice, she opened her teary eyes to look into his. She started to nod her head against his hand to give him the assurance he sought, but at her recognition of the dark emotions that filled his brown eyes, a mixture of deep concern and sorrow and pain, her heart sank into her shoes. She realized, then, the reason for his question, the basis for his concern, the cause of his sorrow. He was worried about her mental state. She could only imagine what he must have witnessed during that space of time. Those long minutes that she couldn’t quite recall when the wildness had taken her in its dark grip and held her relentlessly captive until that frightened little whimper from Scarlett’s lips had broken the thrall. What madness had Reeve seen blazing from her eyes? What violence in her face? Whatever he had seen, it was more than he should have. It was more than she wanted him to know.

Reluctantly, she drew her face away from his hand and tugged at his gentle grasp. His dark lashes slipping down to hide the disappointment in his eyes, he released her. His empty hand drifted first to his sides, and then around his waist, as though he didn’t know what to do with them now that he couldn’t touch her. She averted her face from his somber gaze and steeled her heart to say what she knew she had to say. She knew what she had to do. She knew that she could not stay. The two of them could never regain what they'd had all those years ago. They could never grasp what might have been, and she could not envision the way to go forward. It was time to end what never should have started.

Caitlin folded her arms protectively around her waist, bowing her head to surreptitiously wipe the wetness from her cheek with trembling fingertips. Then she lifted her chin in determination and pinned carefully veiled eyes somewhere in the vicinity of his neatly trimmed mustache and the end of his nose. She knew very well that she would say all the wrong words if she looked into his eyes. In fact, she might say exactly the opposite of what she meant to, a tendency she’d developed of late.

“You’re in charge now, Reeve,” she gruffly informed him. “As soon as you’re free, I will sign the papers that say so.” Her eyes fell to the floor where she studied his mud splattered shoes. “And then, I’m going home.”

Startled at her blunt statement, his eyes widened on her implacable face. “Cait, I don’t think I can…”

Her head shot up, and he fell silent at the intensity of her stare. “Don’t think Reeve,” she said curtly. “Do your job. Those people out there.” She inclined her head toward the door. “They need guidance now. And security. They need to know that the Shinra Coporation holds their best interests to heart. They need to know they have someone to depend on, and you are that someone, Reeve.” A sad smile touched her lips. “You are the man.”

Before he could find his tongue to respond or argue, Caitlin deliberately put her back to him and walked away. She paused at the door to look at Reno with an expectant arch of one eyebrow. The Turk straightened from the wall and spun his magrod through his fingers to land the slender rod against one shoulder. With a nod and a hidden glance through his shades at the speechless executive, he motioned Caitlin through the door, and then he followed her out.

For several minutes after Caitlin and the Turk disappeared together, Reeve stared blindly at the open doorway and struggled to identify even one of the tangled emotions that whirled madly inside his stumbling thoughts. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew he didn’t have the luxury of time. He didn't possess a single moment to stand turned to stone in the center of the room. Not a second to spend in idle contemplation. There were too many matters that required his immediate attention.

First, he had to release Cornell and hope that the engineer would be able to get all the mechanical malfunctions caused from Scarlett's incompetence and neglect back under control. He had to find Coakley and recover his equipment so he could contact Cid about Sector Five. He wanted desperately to initiate a search for the body of the copperhaired girl who had given her life for him. He had to know her name. He had to lay her to rest. He would not leave her in the sewers.

Most importantly, he had to get a handle on all the chaos that Scarlett had created. He had to do just as Scarlett had directed. Settle the people down. But he would do it his way. Not hers. He would go on the television as she'd intended he do, but not to abdicate control, but to reassure them. He would tell them of his plans for them. He would speak to them of his dreams. And he would do so in his own words, even as he prayed that his words would be enough.

Reeve knew exactly what he had to do, but at that moment, he couldn't imagine the point to start, and he couldn’t compose the words he needed to say. Not with his breath frozen inside closed lungs. Not with his heart throbbing painfully in his chest. Not with his fists clenched tightly against his thighs. Not when he couldn't command his legs to move and not when he couldn't drag his anxious eyes from the empty doorway.

Unconsciously, his head moved in a tiny expression of denial. He simply could not comprehend the nature of his duress. Cait was leaving Midgar. She was doing just as he wanted. She was going home. Just as he had commanded her to do when he'd been driven by his need to have her faraway from Midgar, away from the danger rife in the unstable situation, away from him. She was going home to the place she should never have left. Home to the island where she'd lived in peace, until he'd sent the Turks to steal her away. He should be glad she was going. Ecstatic that she would sign the papers and give him exactly what he'd asked. He should have acquired the answers to all his questions by now. He should have attained the closure he'd wanted. Discovered the truth he needed. But he wasn’t glad. He wasn't glad at all. He didn't have his answers. He didn’t have closure. He didn't know the truth. Cait would leave, and he had no idea when she would come back. Maybe she would never come back. Maybe she would never wish to see him again, and he didn’t believe he with that...

In that instant, he had his answer. The revelation hit him with a jarring blow, a bolt of lightning from a clear blue sky. The shock of his admission at the truth that he'd long repressed sizzled through his entire body and left him numb with horror in its wake. He couldn't deny the truth any longer. He’d lied to her from the beginning. Just as he'd lied to himself. He’d never intended to let her go. He found his desire for her not as dead as he’d believed. Nor was his pain buried as deeply as he wanted. He desperately loved his wife then, and he desperately loved her still. And that immutable fact, Reeve feared, would be his undoing.

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